For most of us living in the Northern hemisphere, winter can bring about stagnancy and dullness. We dont get much day light or fresh air, and for many people recreational time usually involves some form of static indoor activity such as reading or catching up on films. Our appetites gravitate us towards meals that are hot, dense and comforting but leave us with little energy to spare for anything else but digestion. All these different factors can add up to extreme lethargy and more frequent lower moods which can become obstacles to us accomplishing all that we want and should.
Physical exercise can be an excellent way to bring in a little more balance into the season but finding motivation for this is challenging. We are inclined to take things easier during the colder months as the body needs to conserve energy but rather than giving up exercise all together, consider taking a gentler approach with exercises such as tai-chi and of-course, yoga. They encourage a more balanced distribution of energy within the body and even just a few minutes of movement can bring about noticeable changes to our mood, energy levels and physical health.
It has now been nearly a month since my return from the beautiful island of Madagascar, and although I’ve already shared many stories with friends and family, now feels like an appropriate time for a little bit more reflection because albeit short, it really was a trip of a lifetime and I’m eternally grateful for having had the opportunity to experience it. I’m still not entirely sure why this trip far exceeded all of my expectations or why it felt so special. As a seasoned traveller with six continents and thirty-five countries under my belt, I can say with certainty that there was much more to it than just following my sense of wanderlust or having a new experience. It was something much deeper that I can’t quite put into appropriate words but feel compelled to try anyway. The aim of this trip was to try and raise money for WaterAid and to learn more about the work they do in Madagascar. Of course, with that came the opportunity to learn more about the country, and to experience some of its natural wonders, and to meet some of its beautiful people.
If you’ve never attended a group yoga class but are considering giving it a go, getting ready for this exciting new partaking is thankfully very simple and taking a few minutes to do a little research on what to expect can ease some of the possible anxiety.
Before you go: Yoga is best practiced on an empty stomach so try to avoid eating anything before attending (or give yourself as much time as possible to digest full meals), you’ll be glad you did. Hydration is also very important so make sure to drink plenty of water before and after class. You can take a bottle of water with you, especially if it’s a Vinyasa flow or hot yoga class, but be aware that some traditional classes in the Ashtanga style would ask that you not drink during practice. Next, wear clothing that doesn’t restrict your movement in any way. Active wear is best but also consider you’ll likely be spending a bit of time upside down so a top that fits more snugly or can be tucked in would be ideal.
Feeling negative, or just generally uninspired, can be the result of getting caught up in the daily routines of life without taking moments to pause and appreciate all that we are and all that we have. This is where practicing gratitude can help; as an adjective it means feeling deeply appreciative of something possessive, whether that is randomly receiving the help of a stranger, or having a warm room to come home to, or anything else appropriate to the individual circumstances. Consciously practicing gratitude creates a little more space in our minds for reflection, which in turn, helps us develop a more positive mental attitude.
The popularity (and effectiveness) of practicing gratitude may be down to its focus on the positive elements of our lives. I know from experience that its all too easy to focus on the negatives of a particular situation because their effect on my psyche are much more profound and longterm than that of a positive situation. That's just how our mind is programmed to work!
Yoga continues to expand and blossom throughout the whole of our world, from its birth place in India, to the Americas and Europe, to the more distant corners of Africa and the rest of Asia. More and more ordinary people are taking up the practice and more and more seasoned students are partaking in yoga teacher training programs. The motivation of both groups is as diverse as the amount of people within them and for those willing to give their energy, yoga has a lot to offer in return. But, is yoga reaching the widest possible audience or are there still prevalent misconceptions?
When I first started my journey ten years ago, I had many hesitations that initially held me back. The most significant of these was that it didn’t feel like I fit into the group of people who represented yoga across conventional media and that implied that perhaps it wasn’t entirely for me after all. Not only did I not look the part but I also lacked what I thought was the prerequisite flexibility – plus I had no interest in chanting, meditation or breathwork, and didn’t want to end up in a class where these were practiced.
Yin yoga is a unique practice that works to improve the health of our joints while cultivating stillness in our minds. Unlike cardiovascular exercises that focus on powering through for the benefit of working your muscles and heart, yin yoga works in an opposite, calming way, to exercise the joints through focusing on the actual physical connections within the body.
The practice consists of various poses that are usually mat based and target connective tissues (ligaments, tendons, bones and fascia) by applying moderate stress to them for several minutes. Anatomically, these tissues are usually in the region of the hips, pelvis, inner thighs and lower spine. These physical areas are not often exercised by the more active, ‘yang style’ movements (such as running or power yoga) so yin yoga can be very complimentary to those who practice them. The higher energy ‘yang type’ practices can also result in inflammation of the deep fascia tissue which can cause pain and stiffness that the long-held ‘yin stretches’ can help release.
Yoga Nidra (or Yogic Sleep) is becoming an increasingly popular practice with many studios now offering dedicated classes that create the atmosphere for an unrushed and nourishing experience - especially useful for the stressed and overworked city dwellers!
What Yoga Nidra actually is and how the classes are structured varies depending on who you ask and where you go. In general there are two approaches however, the first uses Yoga Nidra as a way to progressively relax, kind of like a form of guided meditation. The second, and perhaps the more tradition approach, believes Yoga Nidra to be a particular state of consciousness in which the mind (with all its unconscious components) is able to enter a state of total rest. Many influential teachers have been quoted saying that minutes in this state can be equal to hours of sleep - it's deeply restorative as well as rejuvenating.
The end of a yoga class is usually spent in complete relaxation in order to allow the body to digest and process the practice undertaken so that it can begin to repair and come back just a little stronger. I’ve heard many teachers say that it’s the most important part of class and I’d tend to agree – not just for the physical benefits but the mental ones too. It would be entirely counterproductive to rush back into the real world after class without taking at least a couple of minutes for stillness or reflection. This way, that peaceful after class feeling has a chance to be taken into the rest of the day too.
This complete relaxation, or Savasana as it’s referred to in Sanskrit, can of course be spent in silence (which has the potential to be very powerful) but music could also be considered to assist those especially active wandering minds in focusing their thoughts.