Very often when people talk to me about their first experience in yoga they are disappointed about their body, because their body is not flexible. They see their teacher and classmates folding into poses like origami and get discouraged. Or they search for yoga inspiration online and they find the most beautiful pictures of people in out-of-this-world yoga poses. “How am I ever going to get there?”
Each time I tell them yoga is not about the acrobatics. It’s not about showing off skills. People who can bend and fold like that have practiced yoga for a long time and they love what they can do with their bodies. They have explored their body’s strength and flexibility and appreciate this every day.
This first experience is a wonderful thing; you have started a journey that is going to be wonderful if you allow your body to be as it is instead of focusing on all the things it is not. If you start with yoga you start exploring your body. You learn about its flexibility, about its strength, maybe for the first time in your life. And that is what the experience of yoga is all about. At least the physical experience.
And hear this: you cannot be good or bad at yoga. You cannot have or not have a natural talent for yoga. Or maybe I should say everyone has a natural talent for yoga. Because yoga is the exploration and appreciation of your body and anyone is capable of doing that.
When you practice yoga more often you will get to experience shifts in your body. With a regular practice of poses (asanas) you will find more and more ease like it is with anything you practice in life. One of the most wonderful things I find in yoga is that every time you find yourself on the mat, it will be different. Your body will be different. You find a pose you did not like becoming more easy. Or you get up in the morning and realise you cannot touch your toes like you did the last time in a forward fold. And these shifts will be part of the rest of your yoga journey. Each practice will be different.
This awareness of your body–muscles, bones, nerves, skin, breath–is a true life changer when you start a regular yoga practice. You start collecting data about your physical well-being, your body’s capacities, your focus, and your balance. With every practice you add new data to the study of your body. And you start to compare results. This awareness of your body and attention for all its little signs and signals is something I wish everyone would have in their life.
And if you want to you can explore these signs and signals and really listen to what your body is telling you. Are you experiencing a lot of stress? Do you sleep well? Do you eat well? Can you be kind to yourself? Can you be patient with yourself? Do you love yourself?
I think in today’s world we have forgotten about our bodies. We take it with us everywhere we go, but we don’t seem to be aware of it that much. Sure there are many of us concerned with what we look like and take care of this aspect very well. But I mean do we care about what our bodies feel like on a day to day basis? Or how our body feels during the day from morning to evening? I can imagine when you have an injury or suffering from chronic pains you will notice what your body feels like on a daily basis, yes. But that will most likely be a negative experience. What I mean is much more general. A general yet intentional love for the current state of your whole body and all its little details and wonderful capacities.
Yoga helps you to get this focus in your life. With yoga you learn to become very aware of your body so that you can appreciate, love and marvel at all that it is. For example your breath, flowing through you, giving you life. Your organs working every second to make sure you can live with or without your awareness of it. Your feet, carrying you everywhere you go. So many people say they hate their feet. Well, imagine life without them. They do so much for you, you should love them to bits you know!
Your yoga practice is a perfect moment to give your body the attention it deserves. And – this is one of my favourite plusses – the things you practice on the mat and the things you learn about your body, will eventually become a part of your off-the-mat-life too. You’ll be more considerate about your posture. You will be less inclined to ask too much of your body. You’ll be more aware of your breath. And more balanced overall.
Forward fold – Uttanasana
I was standing in Forward Fold or Uttanasana this morning and I decided to write this article. Forward fold is one of my favourite yoga poses. A delicious pose that is easy and beneficial for your health. After years of practicing yoga this is one of the poses that is so easy, yet tells you everything. If you don’t feel like yoga, don’t have time, just stand in a forward fold for one minute and you will feel totally different.
Personally when I stress, I build up a lot of tension in my neck, shoulders and jaw. Sometimes I don’t even notice it. I also do it in my sleep sometimes, waking up with a tight neck and painful jaw muscles. Then when I step on the mat and get into forward fold it feels like resetting it all. First I notice the tightness or pain some days. (Days I don’t practice in the morning I just start the day without noticing this and it will catch up with me somehow later during the day every time). Also some days I don’t feel tightness at all. I can just bend and even touch my toes!
Days when I can’t, I try not to feel frustrated. I take this as some good advice directly from my body to work on my stress levels and to relax these muscles more. And each time, no matter how far I can stretch, I feel so good in the pose and afterwards. I feel relaxed, I feel aware and I become softer to myself, allowing these sore muscles some well-deserved relief. During the rest of my day, when the stress builds and I’m clenching my jaw again, I notice what I’m doing and correct it. Breathe, relax, let go!
Getting in the pose
Stand up tall with your feet hip width apart or close together, your choice. At hip width it will be easier to balance and the pose will feel more easy overall, for you give yourself some more space. Feet together will feel nice when you’d like to experience an extra stretch in your legs or practice your balance.
Start to focus on your breath. Breathe in deep and breathe out slowly. Forget about everything else for a moment and concentrate on your breath.
Raise your arms to the ceiling slowly. If you like you can stretch a little here.
Then slowly bend forward, following your nose down. If you like you can put your hand on your waist for more stability. Make sure to bend your knees as much as you like. And when you are there, let your arms hang, rest on your feet if they get all the way there or cross your arms and hold your elbows.
Remember to breathe and continue to focus on your breath in and out.
Relax your back, neck, shoulders and jaw. Relax all the muscles in your face.
Feel your ribcage expand when you breath in and feel your back muscles relax with every breath.
Feel your blood flow in the opposite direction.
Getting out of the pose
Getting out of a pose is very important too to prevent injuries or in this case head rush. So please don’t skip this. Don’t just hurry to the rest of your day. Keep moving calmly and mindfully.
The best way, I think is to roll up slowly, vertebrae by vertebrae. Place your chin on your chest and roll up slowly while continuing your breath. Breathe in and out a couple times more when you get all the way to the top and off you go.
You can also continue your practice to another pose. For example place your hands on the mat (bend knees more if you need to) and step your feed all the way back into plank pose. Or continue in a standing pose by rolling up as described above and practice some balance poses.
Think less. Feel more.
This pose will calm your nerves. It is a sweet surrender to your body and to life in the moment. This pose will instantly give you peace and relaxation.
Don’t think too much and do what feels right for you every time. Like my great yoga teacher, (quoted above) has taught me: find what feels good. On the mat and off the mat too.
Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Marleen Mulder, a long time yogi who first stepped on the mat when she was 12 years old. Yoga has been a great help for stress relief, breathing techniques and posture building. In the last couple of years her focus has shifted more toward body awareness, self-love and focus. In her professional life she works as a cleantech strategy consultant and is the Founder of a cleantech education and inspiration platform called Minimal Mass. She is passionate about exploring and enjoying nature and lowering her footprint on the earth.