Picture the scene: it’s 2003. You’re in the pinkest teenagers’ bedroom you’ve ever seen (seriously, there are pink walls, a pink carpet, and pink bedlinen), the only colour variation being the bright yellow TV/VHS combination, upon which a crackly yoga class is playing.
This was my very first experience of yoga – before I went to any classes, before there was YouTube or #YogaEveryDamnDay on Instagram, I practised yoga alone in my bedroom to Barbara Currie video tapes. My boyfriend at the time – having done a PE GCSE, and knowing a lot more about the human body than me at the time – questioned why I did it, as the slow, controlled pace meant that I was neither burning calories nor building muscle.
To be honest, at the time I didn’t even know why I was doing it, just that it said in Heat magazine that a lot of film and music stars were doing it and most of all, I really enjoyed it. I progressed to doing weekly classes at my local library where I learned a lot more about alignment and even how to do headstands, only to drop out of these and no longer practice when I moved to Manchester.
Since then my relationship with yoga has been varied. I’d begin a course of classes, only to suffer from backache a few weeks in (which I now know is because of a hypermobile thoracolumbar junction) then go back to it and begin the cycle again. Armed with the knowledge about my back and how to manage it I’ve recently reintroduced yoga back into my activity regime and I’m enjoying it more than ever.
This International Yoga Day I’m reflecting on what yoga really means to me and what benefits my practice brings to me.
Yoga gives me chance to practice humility
I am a relatively strong person, and usually use this to muscle my way through things, whether that’s a lift in the gym or a life situation. You can’t do this in yoga unless you are fighting with your body. My yoga practice involves me leaving my physical strength at the door, and being kind to my body, only moving to positions and in ways that feel natural to me.
This is especially important when it comes to my lower back – I could easily get deeper into postures by taking advantage of the hypermobility, however this is often accompanied by back pain, lasting longer than just the yoga class. I have to leave my ego at the door, be humble, and accept that wherever I get to in a posture is where I’m supposed to be.
Yoga gives me the opportunity to switch off
Even during a gruelling gym session, I’ll still check my phone or be paying attention to what people are doing around me. A yoga class gives me the opportunity to leave my phone outside for an hour or longer and focus on the here and now. I think when I first started going to classes I’d eye up what everyone else was doing, but now I keep the focus on me and what my body is doing, rather than what’s gone on in work that day or what I should be buying from the supermarket that evening. Although more research is needed, a review suggests that moving meditation (or Hatha yoga) improves memory, mental flexibility, and attention span, so there are benefits beyond feeling relaxed after your class.
Yoga helps my flexibility
I don’t think flexibility is the be-all of yoga, far from it – but there’s no denying that practising yoga frequently can help you release tight muscles and aid flexibility. You might think being flexible is something superficial and unimportant, but a study showed that for people age 40 and over flexibility in the body was accompanied by flexibility in the arteries, reducing the risk for cardiovascular disease and even death.
Yoga improves my posture
I’ve always been a very ‘hunched’ person, ever since I was very young. I went through puberty before all of my friends and felt like hunching my shoulders was a way to hide myself, and it’s something that’s unfortunately stuck with me. The more I practise yoga, the more I feel my chest opens up and my shoulders come back more naturally. Posture isn’t just an aesthetic thing – having poor postures puts strain on muscles, ligaments, tendons and even joints where there shouldn’t be, leaving you susceptible to injuries.
At the end of the (International Yoga) day, your yoga practice is YOUR yoga practice. Whether you do it for the strength gains, the mindfulness, or the flexibility, it’s completely up to you and nobody has a right to judge for the what and why of your practice.