Being strong as a woman is not only okay it’s incredibly good for you

One of the benefits of a more dynamic style of yoga like ashtanga is that it will build strength. Some women may be scared to be strong fearing that they will somehow make you less attractive. Don’t panic, women build strength differently to men in fact it’s more difficult for women to build strength so chances are you won’t end up looking like Arnie especially not with the bodyweight exercises in Ashtanga Yoga.

Why challenging your strength is good for women

  • Photo by Nata Moraru

    Builds stronger bones and reduces the risk of osteoarthritis

  • Muscle burns fat at rest so increases your metabolism helping to build a lean healthy physique
  • It’s incredibly empowering and fun to be able to lift your own body weight
  • Challenging your strength physically challenges your mind mentally making you stronger and more resilient on the inside and the outside
  • It looks beautiful, whoever says woman can not be strong has an outdated view of what a woman is in my opinion, we are many things and some of us are incredibly strong
  • It helps you do stuff like lift things and have a stronger core and thus be less prone to injury

Women face a few challenges when building strength. The common thing you will hear is that because we don’t have as much testosterone it is harder for us to build strength. This is true. On top of that our hormones change throughout our monthly cycle. During the two weeks just before your period the levels of oestrogen and progesterone are elevated. During this phase of our cycle it is harder to build up strength.

Just keep going, it is possible for women to get strong it will usually just take longer than a man takes. My husband seems to grow muscle overnight that I swear it would take me months to build!

Building strength in Ashtanga Yoga

Helen doing yoga arm balance Karandavasana

Photo by Nata Moraru

Yoga isn’t about being stronger or achieving the next pose it’s more about learning to relax and accept things as they are. That said ashtanga yoga is physically demanding and it will make you stronger so it makes sense to consider your physiology and work with it. Your muscles get stronger when you challenge them and then allow them to recover. Both the challenge and the recovery are equally important here. If you just do what you normally do and don’t challenge yourself then you will maintain your strength which is great but you won’t get stronger because there is no challenge. Also if you challenge yourself everyday then your body will struggle to build muscle because it doesn’t have enough recovery.

If you practice yoga 2 or 3 days a week your body will have plenty of time to recover. If you practice Ashtanga Yoga six days a weeks as I do then make some of the days easier from a strength perspective by just doing the movement using your current strength rather than challenging yourself further. It’s fine to keep moving whilst recovering, and stretching everyday is really good for you.

Have you gotten stronger through practicing ashtanga? How has this changed you?

 

When you don’t want to practice is sometimes when it’s most important to get on your mat

Yoga is great! I love it so much and it’s a fundamental part of my day and my life.  Most of the time I enjoy practicing and am happy to get on my mat but it’s unrealistic to think that would I always want to practice. Sometimes I don’t.

Most people don’t experience this when they first start practicing as at this point you are still discovering how amazing it is. Obviously, there are times when not practicing is the right choice. If you are ill for instance. Most of the time however, these are the best practices. They are the ones you need and benefit from the most.

Helen practicing a yoga forward bend

Photograph by Nata Moraru

Yoga has a multitude of benefits that go beyond the general improvements in your health and wellbeing. It is a practice that teaches you to connect with yourself, your body and your mind as they are. This can be incredibly transformational but sometimes you don’t want to see things as they are. Sometimes you want to distract yourself from it and this. I guess this is one of the reasons drinking alcohol and watching tv are such popular pastimes.

Ashtanga yoga is traditionally practiced 6 days a week, which is how I practice. This means I practice on good days and bad. I respect that it is not possible or practical for everyone to commit to practicing daily. What is good then is to commit to the days that you do practice so that you don’t just practice when you feel like it. If you do that you miss out on the opportunity to bring your mind back when it’s distracted, to learn to accept your mind even when it’s chaotic, to accept your body when it’s not at it’s best and to give yourself the practice when it needs it most.

Life isn’t always easy and your yoga practice should reflect that. We practice when we are happy, sad, in love, angry, lonely, lost and busy.  Yoga practice isn’t about perfection it’s about being present with whatever you are experiencing at the time.

If my mind is feeling particularly busy, I just take my practice one breath at a time. I let my mind do whatever it is up to. I don’t judge it but whenever it wanders, I just bring it back to my breath. Without fail, in all the years of doing this, I have always been grateful that I practiced.

Do you practice yoga when you don’t want to? How has it helped you?

How to deal with the mental aspect of being injured

I have helped so many students with injuries over the years. As well as helping students with the physical aspect of an injury, and referring for more help when appropriate, I have discovered that there are some common mental aspects to being injured.

Being injured can be a real challenge. If you are injured then you may need to seek out specific advice about how to manage the physical side of the injury. You may need to see a physiotherapist and also talk to your yoga teacher about how to adapt your yoga practice. The range of possible injuries is vast and so I am not going to deal with that here, if you’re my student and need to talk to me about your own individual case then, of course, you can.

If you get injured and you are used to being physically active then there is usually a mental journey that you go on too. You may feel that your progress will be hindered but as yoga is an internal practice usually the opposite is true. It can be difficult to see that at the time but the patience, awareness and compassion you develop from being injured will teach you a great deal about yourself.

Blame

When you get injured it is logical for you to ask why did this happen. It’s good practice and worth asking. If you can find the cause it’s good to learn from it, particularly if you were pushing too hard. Sometimes it’s not your fault! Not every injury is caused by you or someone else doing something wrong, maybe you fell or maybe you just had some underlying imbalance you were unaware of. So take a moment to learn what you can to help you in the future but be compassionate about it – you are not invincible and sometimes things just go wrong.

48 hours rest

trikonasana yoga pose

Don’t be afraid to go back to basics – photo by Nata Moraru

If your injury is severe it is generally advised to rest it as much as possible for 48 hours. Again I am not going into specific injuries here, so seek advice on your individual injury and circumstances. After that, it is generally advised to resume activity but only to the extent that you can do so without aggregating your injury further. This may mean you do a different activity or you modify the activity – you may need help working this out. You need to be prepared to take a step back from your normal practice. It is tempting to rest completely but usually this is not optimal, as exercising helps blood circulation, which in turn helps an injury to heal. However you don’t want to aggravate things further, so I would generally advise you do less than you think you can, and gradually and carefully build back up, under the guidance of you teacher. Mentally you have to be prepared to back off and take it easy, which can be harder than stopping completely. It can seem hard, because you have to face the injury, and it can be frustrating but it’s incredibly useful as a practice because life doesn’t always go as planned. Sometimes you have to keep going when things are not going the way you had planned. You can battle internally with this or you can learn to accept and embrace your current circumstances whilst taking steps forward to help you get better.

The process of dealing with an injury is very universal, so despite feeling like you are the only one going through what you are, you will probably find others have had similar experiences at some point in their lives. Yes, you are special but so is everyone else. Realizing this can help you let go of your own melodrama, so talk to others about how you feel.

Practice ahimsa. One of the ethical precepts of yoga is ahimsa, which means nonviolence. Like many things in life, it’s good to start learning to practice this on yourself before branching out into the world. It sounds easy to practice not hurting yourself but again and again, I find myself teaching this. Your body is the most amazing gift you have, it is incredible, take good care of it.

Yoga is not about advancing your physical practice, it is easy to get distracted by that. The real yoga happens practicing when you don’t want to as well as when you do. Take some time to reconnect with the bigger reasons of why you practice, be it because it makes you calmer, more focused or enhances your wellbeing. Remind yourself of that and work with what you have.

Have you ever been injured? What did you learn from it?

 

When life doesn’t go as planned, can you accept it as it is

Suffering is caused when there was a mismatch between expectation and reality. Such a simple concept, but understanding it has really helped me to handle challenges that life inevitably throws at us.

Things don’t always go our way. It’s inevitable because not everything is within our control. Life would be pretty dull if it was probably. So when things are not going your way you have a choice. You can accept reality as it is even if you then do whatever you can do to change it. Or you can get frustrated, angry and anxious about the way things are. You can try to fight it, but that in itself will probably not change the reality you find yourself in.

Yoga can help you develop flexibilty in your expectations as will as your body. Photo by Nata Moraru

Yoga can help you develop flexibilty in your expectations as will as your body

I think it’s very natural to feel frustrated when things aren’t gong your way. It’s not particularly useful though. I am not saying you should lie down and accept your fate and not do anything to resolve your problem. You absolutely should. But sometimes that starts with accepting things as they are. If you don’t accept reality, it will still be reality – it’s just that you will be fighting it.

This all sounds really simplistic I know, but it really has had a major impact on how I handle life’s curveballs. How does yoga come into all this? Well yoga can help you to be more aware of the present moment and as you become more aware, that you have a choice about how you respond to something. As you notice these moments of choice more and more, you will become aware that often getting frustrated doesn’t get you anywhere. You might still feel frustrated. That’s normal. And you should absolutely not judge yourself for that either! Just notice it and see how quickly you can accept what is actually happening. And if it’s appropriate, or possible, to do something about it.

I know this is so much easier to say sometimes than to do. It’s important not to judge yourself if you find it difficult to accept your circumstances or your pain. We all go through challenges sometimes and some problems are easier to embrace than others. Just apply this whenever you can, I hope it helps you as much as it helps me.

Has yoga helped you to embrace life’s challenges? How….

Yoga Social and Ashtanga Yoga Liverpool’s community

It has always been important to me to build community in my yoga classes. When I first moved to Liverpool 10 years ago, yoga classes were one of the first things I sought out.

When I first started coming to yoga classes in LiverpoolI found instant connection and like-minded people. So as well as the classes I felt I had also found my clan. When you practice yoga with the same people each week you feel a level of connection with them even if you haven’t spoken to them.

Yet yoga classes don’t really offer that much time to socialize. You get to chat at the beginning and end where you can chat and meet your neighbor or just lie down if you’re feeling like some quiet time. It’s a nice inclusive environment but as it’s a very internal activity you don’t really socialize that much in class.

Yogis socialising at Yoga Social at the egg cafe

Yogis socialising at Yoga Social at the egg cafe

So when I became a yoga teacher I had the idea to do regular yoga socials to give my students a chance to connect outside of class.
Last week we had our yoga social at the egg café, it was great to see so many of you make the effort and a great night was had by all. I have been doing this now for 7 years or so and I am pleased to see how you as a community have embraced it.

Not only have I found that everyone who comes strengthens or creates friendships with others from class, I have also found this usually continues beyond the yoga social itself. People are more chatty at the start of class now they know more people and people start to meet up and help each other out, moving house etc. This is community and as much as I would like to I can not create that, you do. So if you see someone looking shy introduce yourself, we have all had our first class once and it really helps if you know someone. Or if you are new don’t be afraid to start to chat to your neighbor, they might just be your new best friend.

Have you ever been to a yoga social? Share your experiences with our community…..

Some poses may take a while but what you learn along the way will be more valuable than achieving them

Some of the yoga poses took me 5 years or more of daily practice before I could do them. This surprises some of my students when I tell them. Typically it comes up when they start to feel frustrated that they still can’t do x y z. They say something like “I have been working at this for ages and I still can’t do it”. It often turns out that ages is actually a few months.

Marichyasana D - was very challenging for me, it took about 5 years I think

Marichyasana D – was very challenging for me, it took about 5 years I think

I get that they are frustrated, I have been there. We live in a world that changes fast. When you first start practicing yoga you will see big changes in your flexibility and strength. The more you practice the more you will see these shifts will continue but may become more subtle at times. It’s not that the body isn’t changing, it’s just that some of these poses ask a lot and require lots of gradual shifts; and if it is skill and/or strength orientated it also requires lots and lots of repetition.

Many people are more flexible than I was when I began my yoga journey but I was never very tight either. Having taught hundreds of people over the years I would say I was about average.

When I began my Ashtanga journey 11 years ago I looked at many of the poses and wondered how they were even possible for anyone let alone me. I sneaked a look at second series and thought it was something that was beyond my body, I never imagined that I would be practicing full second series as I am now. As such I never imaged I would learn third series but it is now pretty much inevitable that I will begin that journey at some point. My body continues to amaze me and yours can too.

Helen doing yoga pose supta kurmasana

Supta Kurmasana – sleeping tortoise took about 7 years before I could do this without help

Over the years more things became possible. I came to realize with consistent practice my body would change. Sometimes it feels like no changes are happening and then all of a sudden there is a big shift. It’s easy to get obsessed with achieving asana which, as I said in my last post, is just another form of spiritual materialism. Over the years I realized that my life didn’t change that much when I managed to get into an asana. I also learnt that although obsessing over achieving asana is unnecessary I have to care a little bit in order to do a challenging practice. If I don’t care at all then I don’t take myself to my edge and miss out on many of the wonderful lessons which that brings to my life. So you need some striving and some surrender and along the way you learn the valuable skills of patience and humility.

In all honesty I can often help a student to get there a little quicker than I did myself. I have learnt a lot along the way which I can now share. The important part however is never how long it takes to get there but what you learn along the way.

Enjoy your journey…

Are there any yoga poses that you once thought were impossible that you can now do? What has working toward a yoga pose taught you about yourself or life?

How to stay present during your yoga practice and how this will help you in your life

There are many reasons to practice yoga. There are lots of reasons why I practice yoga but my main reason is to practice becoming more present. Mindfulness and being present is my most important value not just in my yoga practice but in my life. That is because if I am not present I am not fully able to engage in anything else. I can love more fully, I can enjoy life more, I notice more, the list is endless.

We were discussing this in my last workshop because sometimes yoga can seem like its always about advancing in the yoga poses. This is just another form of materialism and doesn’t really lead to any lasting peace. Of course there is joy from achieving something you have worked hard to achieve. There is also a fantastic shift that happens when you realize that with practice you can transform your body or indeed other aspects of your life. These are some of the other wonderful benefits of the practice.

I think some people imagine that people who are more present are in some kind of state of bliss. They maybe feel that it is easy for them, the way we can look at others practicing advanced yoga poses and not see the decades of daily practice but just the flexible body and think how lucky they are.

Being present isn’t always easy. I have been practicing it for many years now, through my yoga practice, meditation and my life and I still find it challenging. The practice has made me better at it but not perfect. Being present isn’t just something that happens on the mat but the time on my mat gives me a focused part of my day in which to tune in and to train my mind. Sometimes my mind is busy, sometimes my mind is calm. Good things and bad things happen to everyone all the time. It’s easier to sit with bliss than with pain but if we run from pain then we could feed it with our thoughts.

When I practice on my yoga mat it isn’t always easy. Sometimes my mind doesn’t want to be in the present but after many years of practicing I have learnt some techniques which have helped me.

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When your mind gets busy, use your breath as an anchor to keep you in the present.

  • Don’t judge yourself. Judging your mind for being noisy or yourself for being emotional is feeding the pattern. It is neither good nor bad it just is. Acknowledge that the mind is noisy but don’t dwell on it.
  • Take each breath as it comes, the breath is a very real and present experience, become aware of it. This is true all the time but if you are struggling it can really help you to just focus on each breath one at a time as you practice.
  • If you start thinking about something and get lost in it. As soon as you notice bring your awareness back to the breath.
  • If you are going through a difficult experience focus on what is actually happening rather than what could happen in future. Often this is less overwhelming even in a crisis. If there is pain allow yourself to feel it. Being present isn’t about suppression or perfection it’s about being here.

How do you practice being more present? Do You find it challenging? What has helped you?

Is Yoga Photography Inspiring or Intimidating? You Decide…

Last month I did my first Instagram yoga challenge. The challenge involved having a photograph of myself taken in a yoga pose from the second series, for each day of the month. The challenge was organised and hosted by Ashtanga Dispatch who gave us a pose for each day of the month. I did every pose but sometimes had to post multiple photos on one day, as I didn’t always have a photographer handy.

karandavasana

A hugely physical pose that requires not just strength but the presence of mind to control the movement. I can land this but alas can not come back up yet…..Photograph by Nata Moraru.

I am not shy in general, but I do feel a bit self conscious about sharing photographs of myself doing yoga. I decided to do the challenge partly to take myself out of my comfort zone and to examine this resistance. It was challenging at times. I practice yoga 6 days a week so doing the pose wasn’t really the challenging part. Don’t get me wrong, some of the poses are really challenging, but I am used to that and I know I can only do what my body will allow on any given day. What was challenging was sharing that photograph out into the world regardless of how I felt emotionally that day. Yes it’s true. Yoga teachers are not perfect human robots and sometimes they feel vulnerable or well just about anything, because we are not robots!

Why the resistance to yoga photography?

Yoga to me is about so much more than the yoga positions themselves. I sometimes think people get a bit caught up in the physical dimension of the practice and they think that the most advanced yogi is the one who is the strongest and most flexible. I don’t think social media has helped this and there are a lot of photographs of thin people, scantily dressed, doing advanced yoga moves. As a woman I have mixed feelings about this. I think women should be able to wear short shorts and crop tops if that’s what they feel comfortable in. What gets corrupted though is that it sometimes feels like people are showing beautiful thin bodies in order to advertise yoga. Now I have no doubt that yoga can help people who need to loose weight to attain that, but I see this as a secondary almost incidental gain. Yoga can give you so much more. It can help you become more at ease with who you are right now. It can help you to experience life more fully. It is not some kind of secret club for the young skinny and beautiful.

Are yoga picture inspiring or intimidating?

yoga-nidrasana

It looks so easy but it took years and years of daily practice. Yoga Nidrasana which means yogi sleep pose. Photograph by Nata Moraru.

This is up to you. When you see an image of someone in an advanced position what do you think? You might think they have crazy genes and they were born bendy. I would say my own genetic flexibility is average, but because I have done yoga since I was 17, my body has become more flexible over the years. Now at 35, I am more flexible than I can ever remember being and this is due to a dedicated daily practice 6 days a week. When you see the photo you can’t always see the story behind the pose. The daily journey from not being able to do something to doing it everyday, the impossible can become possible, but sometimes it takes years. By challenging yourself you will learn a great deal about yourself, so it is my hope that such photographs inspire you to do so. It is also my hope that you don’t feel the need to become anything other than more like yourself. We all have physical limits. Challenge your own, but enjoy where you are too. An advanced yoga pose may not change your life in the way you expect. Surrendering to where you are whilst always gently pushing against your own limitations will teach you so much more.

Why I have come to like Instagram as a social media channel

Uth-pluthi-Helen

Finding time for a cheeky smile. Photograph by Nata Moraru.

The thing I like most about Instagram is that I can write a couple of paragraphs to accompany my photographs. I know it’s primarily a photo sharing site and not everyone will read something, but it’s nice to be able to share more of the journey or to give some tips on the yoga positions as well as a micro blog about other aspects of my life. That way it feels less narcissistic and more of a useful service. Despite all my misgivings about sharing photographs of myself in yoga poses, it has been nice to share more of what I do on my mat with both friends and students. There is a whole lot more going on than the yoga positions themselves, but I can hopefully share that by who I am as a person. I endeavour to do so. Meanwhile yoga pictures are a visual way of me sharing more of myself, and what I do on my mat. I hope you find them useful. You can see the rest of the photographs on my Instagram account here.  All these photographs by my student Nata Moraru.

What do you think about yoga photographs?

Guest Post – Nata Moraru tells how yoga has changed her life

“Home is neither here nor there, home is within you or nowhere at all.” Herman Hesse

One of my favourites quotes. Always liked it but never felt it 100% even if I thought I did. It was just after I started to do yoga (about a year ago) when I truly felt it. With all my bones, chest and water.

I felt in love with yoga the first time I went. I went for the body, stayed for the mind and soul. Because at the beginning I didn’t feel much changes in my body (the body changes came later and they were amazing), but my mind and soul was like a cherry tree in spring. During Savasana (relaxation) I started to feel that “home within” that Hesse is talking about. And it was amazing. I felt the whole universe is in my chest. I felt like I was lifted from the mat and at the same time was melting in the floor. Never felt that before. It was truly amazing. I always had a “special relationship” with water but since I started to do yoga it became stronger. When I am doing yoga I feel like I’m the whole sea and a boat that is floating on it. Both at the same time. Very interesting feeling. One time during Savasana I had tears in my eyes, totally unexpected, like the sea I was feeling inside me, that I always see an feel during yoga flowed through my eyes. Same water, same salt. At that moment I felt one with everything. I felt home. The “oneness”.

The breath is the bridge between mind and body and a very powerful tool.
I started to feel my body differently. I wasn’t ashamed of it anymore (as I’ve been my whole life, because of my twisted spine and because I was always very skinny and so many people were reminding me about it every day and telling me I should eat more).
And I think that’s why it started to respond to all the exercises. Because I started to feel my body differently. I also started to become more aware of my body and how I was standing outside of yoga.

Nata-before-and-after

Before and after photographs show how Nata has gained weight as she has become more in tune with her body

I stopped hiding my back (as I’ve been always doing, with long hair or hoodies). I’m not ashamed of my back and body anymore. It feels really good. I gained about 11kg since I started to do yoga, even my eating habits didn’t change. I feel healthy and feel good in my own body.

Then the pain disappeared. The back pain, I had my whole life, especially past 5-6 years when I couldn’t stand up for more than two hours without having killing pain in my back. I few weeks ago, after a very long day at work, about 12 hours standing up I noticed that I have no pain in my back, at all. Yes, my feet were hurting my arm was tired from holding the heavy camera, but no pain in my back. My lower back that was always in pain.
It’s an amazing feeling – not to be in pain, after so many hours of standing up, when a year ago I had to crawl out of bed because of the pain (it hurt too much just to sit up from lying so I always had to crawl out to the floor then stand up).

This x-ray of Nata’s spine shows her scoliosis clearly.

I had a twisted spine since I can remember. I think I was about 7-8 years old when my mum noticed that my back was just a little bit uneven, and we had the bad luck to go to a doctor that didn’t really know what he was doing and only cared for the money. I started to do some exercises with him, and some pretty “violent” and painful massage when he was pushing my bones, I found out later that It was very bad for my back and in no time from a slightly uneven back my spine became S shape and nobody couldn’t help me.

Unmeasurable gratitude to Helen for all her help. I am very lucky and thank the gods to have decided that winter day of 1st December to go online and look for yoga classes in Liverpool and to have found Helen’s class. Over the last year I have tried to go 3 times a week because I think it’s important to go regularly. There are many more things I could say about how yoga makes me feel and how it changed my life but sometimes there are not enough words…

Don’t just go to church, be the church. Don’t just go to yoga, be yoga. Don’t just lay on the grass, be the grass. Don’t just. Be. Be.come one.

Bless.

Namaste x

This post was written by Nata Moraru. As well as being a dedicated yogini, Nata is also a photographer, you may have seen some of the photo’s she has taken of me on instagram recently, you can find her photography here on Facebook.

How to start your own yoga self practice at home

Finding time for yoga can be hard. Life gets so busy and there are always more things to be done than can be done. The busier we get the more useful the yoga can be, everybody needs time to relax. So whether you are finding it hard to get to class as often as you like or if you would like to practice between classes, here are some tips.

  1. Set a time for your practice and defend it. You need to make sure you have some time to yourself when you can do some yoga, it might just be 15 minutes. There will always be other things you could be doing so don’t let them take over, prioritise this time.
  2. Get your mat out. When the scheduled time arrives you may or may not want to practice but you should get your mat out regardless. Once you get started you will probably feel better, so put your mat out and see how it goes.
  3. Doing a short practice is a great start. It’s better to start short because then you are more likely to be able to find time and energy for it. Start with some sun salutations and the last 3 seated positions. If you have more time and energy then by all means do more but if this all you can do, it will still do you the world of good.
  4. Respect your body – sometimes you will be tired, ill or even injured. Sometimes this will mean you should rest completely or modify your practice, don’t beat yourself up. There is a principle in yoga called ahimsa it means non-violence start with yourself. If your unsure talk to a yoga teacher or medical professional, whichever is appropriate.
  5. Allow yourself some time for relaxation. Do not rush off your yoga mat give yourself some quality time to relax. If necessary set a timer, you need to allow at least 5 minutes. The timer will stop you rushing off because you feel busy but it will also allow you to relax more fully.
  6. Use a book or a dvd to motivate you. David Swenson created short versions of the ashtanga sequence which could be a great option if you’re busy or just starting to build up a practice. You can find this sequence in his book and his DVD. If you want to practice the full primary series, Kino MacGreggor has a great primary series DVD.
  7. Come to a Mysore style class. A Mysore style class is the traditional method of teaching Ashtanga Yoga. It is self practice with teacher’s assistance. This allows for much more personalised instruction as well as a personalised practice. These classes are suitable for all levels including complete beginners and are especially useful if you want to develop a self practice. If you are in Liverpool I teach Mysore style classes on Monday evening as well as running regular Mysore intensives.

Do you have a home yoga practice? What tips can you share to help others develop their yoga practice?