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 accepting life as it is will allow you to experience it more fully

Not all that you experience in life will seem positive. How you deal with it, how you think about it afterwards, how you encode your experiences will determine how positively you feel about them. One definition of suffering is expecting your experience to be different from what it is. Everything occurs in the present moment. There is no past or future, only now, and everything that is possible to exist exists right now. It is only possible for you to experience right now, so whatever is happening, it is important to start by accepting it all for what it is. Failing to accept the present, or actively trying to avoid it, can cause suffering. This is true whether you experience something that is out of your direct control, or just think harshly of yourself, like that you are not living up to your own expectations.

My yoga practice has taught me a lot about this. The other week I went through this process and it was both interesting and transformational for me personally so I thought I would share it here in case you case you can find a way to let it help you redefine your experience of the present into a more positive one.

The reason yoga can be really transformational in this way is that when we connect with our breath and practice yoga positions with awareness we are practicing being present. This sometimes brings down defenses that we may have set up to help us avoid the present moment. If you have ever had this experience in yoga, you possibly didn’t want to practice that day. This is why a regular consistent practice, however often you personally can mange it is so important. Sometimes it’s the days when you think you don’t want to practice that you stand to gain the most benefit from it.

As I practiced, I noticed I was feeling a bit fed up. I breathed and observed this feeling, and realized that I was frustrated that I was not living up to my own expectations in one specific area of my life. I realized that although I may be able to change the future this is how things stood right now. I learned to accept this real version of myself instead of the one I thought it should be.

I find that as I practice acceptance and move through my practice there is a shift in the feeling. As I accept it, it loses it’s power over me and I become more present and experience it for what it is – and it really isn’t that bad after all.

My next step in this case was to discover how I could work on this aspect of myself. It led to some really positive changes for me. Sometimes you can’t change a problem so accepting it is all that is necessary. As you learn to accept life as it is, you experience each moment more fully and realize how amazing life really is.

Much of this can be simplified in the following Buddhist quote

“If something can be remedied
Why be unhappy about it?
And if there is no remedy for it,
There is still no point in being unhappy.”
Shatideva

How has yoga helped you to accept yourself, just as you are?

A poem about Yoga – Surrendering to Yoga by Helen Aldred

Helen's creative journalWhen I was younger I used to write a lot. As soon as I learnt to write I would love to write creative stories then later as a teenager, poetry.  It was something spontaneous and necessary that was very much a part of me. As a teenager I used to have a book where I would collect quotes and write poetry. I would carry it with me everywhere so that I could always write should the urge hit me. It was by my bed as I slept, it was in my bag at the beach. In recent years I have written creatively less, not due to any conscious decision – I love writing – but it rarely grabs hold of me the way it did when I was younger. I am grateful to blogging for reigniting the writer in me. Recently I decided I would like to write more and I started by buying a beautiful notebook, a special place to journal and share my thoughts.  It is in this book that one morning before my yoga practice I felt moved to write this poem.

Surrendering to Yoga

Helen dropping back into a yoga backbendOh yoga sometimes you ask so much,

There is no place to hide.

Every part of me is invited, here I am,

I offer complete surrender.

Open, open, open body, mind, heart,

Expose all the hidden parts

Here, here, here, everything is bare.

In this moment, I open it all,

Here it is, all these treasures

The love ,the hurt , the vulnerability,

The anger, the pride, the invincibility

I clung to them but I need not.

They are not mine, they are not me.

Thank you yoga for asking for it all,

For not letting me hide, for allowing me to soar.

 

Habits – how to build great habits of your own choosing

A habit is a practiced and repeated action which may or may not be done unconsciously. When we think of habits we often think of bad habits that people may  struggle to give up, such as smoking. However in reality we all have many habits which literally shape our lives. Realising this, and learning to change the habits that no longer serve you, and building new ones which do serve you is transformational. As many who have stepped onto this path will realise it is not always easy.

In yoga philosophy the word samskara refers to the imprints on the subconcious mind from previous actions. Scientists have found that when we repeat a behaviour we strengthen the neural pathway in our brains. This is great news if we are building good habits such as eating healthily, getting enough sleep and practicing yoga ;-). As we repeat the behaviour the neural pathways become stronger and in time we reach for a piece of fruit without thinking.

Yoga can be great at making us more aware of our habits. Awareness is a great tool and will help you understand why you do something. For example, I had a bad habit of reading for too long in the morning before practice.  My schedule is sometimes flexible in that I can do that, but it wasn’t what I wanted to do and it wasn’t helping me get the most out of my day. It had become a habit though, so there must be something I was getting out of it. I realised I needed some free time to do as I pleased. So now I give myself this time to read but it has a cut off time at 8 am when my yoga practice begins.

For me that’s one of the keys to changing habits, as I think you have to work out what the old habit is serving. Do you watch TV instead of being active because you’re tired? Do you need more sleep? Do you smoke because you like to take a break from work, socialise with friends or relax? Can you find new ways to get the same benefits that are more in line with the person you want to be.

We become good at what we practice. The trick is to choose what you want to practice and shape your life into your own groove. We all have good and bad habits. We can learn and gain strength from the good ones and use them as a model to work from. You can literally rewire your brain that way, building new pathways and a new you.

As a side note I hope those of you in the UK are enjoying this amazing weather.

Do you have any habits you have changed? How did you do it?

Still so much to learn – the yoga journey – challenging your boundaries

I have been practicing yoga for over 15 years now and yet sometimes I feel like a complete beginner.

When my students talk to me about my practice, they sometimes ask if there is

Helen doing yoga pose pincha mayurasana

Picha Mayurasana – It took me hundreds of attempts to learn to balance this yoga pose.

anything I can’t do.  I answer emphatically yes.  In all honesty I am surprised by the question, the topic of yoga is so vast. I have practiced the primary series now, thousands of times, my body knows it well and can get into the poses without being warmed up. Still there are always more detailed refinements to make and more challenging asana to work on. Even though I am fortunate enough to be able to dedicate my time to practice, study and teaching, there will always be more to learn.

For me that’s a relief!  I love doing something impossible every day, challenging my ego and my sense of what’s possible. As those of you who study with me probably know, I love to understand how the body works anatomically, both in my body and in others.  I love to delve deeper to challenge my perspective on life through my study of philosophy and the fruits of practice. I love the journey.

Ashtanga yoga has a reputation for being hard. It is but it meets you wherever you are. If you can’t do something all you can do is work where your at today. It’s great to find these boundaries, use them as tool to challenge yourself.  Working on a posture that challenges you requires you to bring a whole new level of awareness to your practice. Delve deeper, this is where the lessons are.  Does your ego think you should be able to do it. My ego sometimes does, the ego is a funny creature, learn to not take it so seriously, surrender to where you are right now.

As you work this way, challenging your beliefs about what you think is possible will become second nature.

Why is it important to do impossible asanas?

No it’s not so you can pull off a snazzy move on the dance floor or because you will have the body you always dreamed of, although these things may happen ;-). The real benefit of doing a pose that you thought was once impossible is that you can apply that to your life. If you can’t do something yet, work at it consistently, observe people who can, ask for advice but if you want to do it you can. It’s not impossible it just needs work. Removing the barriers from your life can be liberating to say the least.

Of course once you can do that impossible pose, they’ll be another one waiting for you. In Ashtanga yoga there are 6 series, the first series, the primary series is enough to keep most people challenged and only the naturally flexible or those who start very young will reach series 6.  Do you know what, that’s a relief to me, I thrive on a challenge.

What do you find impossible right now in yoga or in life? Has yoga helped you to challenge the boundaries of what you think is possible?

From Backbends to the Kitchen Sink – Goals and the Present Moment

Happy New Year!  Christmas and New Year is usually a time of reflection for me, I think this is because I usually have some time off work, away from my usual routine.  This gives me a bit of perspective on the way things are going and seems like a good time for me to set some goals for my future.   I think goals are important because if we don’t decide on our own direction, we put ourselves at the mercy of other people’s whims.  I  wonder how goals fit in with a commitment to being here and now, which I also have. I think that whilst we can have a version of a future which we will do anything we can to get to, all we ever really have is here and now.  It’s important to not only enjoy the journey but realise that we build the future in the here and now, in many baby steps and as we do this we interact with a world which is beyond our control and ever changing.  So we may need to adapt our plan but it is still worth planning, in fact if you didn’t plan at all you wouldn’t even get out of bed.

 

One of my main goals this year is to be tidier.  In yoga philosophy cleanliness is one the Niyamas (ethical guidlines concerning ourselves).   In truth this has been a goal of mine in the past and I have learnt a lot in my previous attempts which will surely help me to make the necessary changes.  I also have a wealth of experience of which to draw on.  I know that I have made other changes in the past and I know that this is something which is mostly within my own control.  It is easy for me to write blog posts about maintaining a daily yoga practice because I have been practicing yoga for years and I love it, tidying and me have had a different relationship in the past and it is possible for me to draw on what I learn from yoga and apply it to my life, sometimes in surprising ways.

 

I posted this picture of my practice on Christmas day.  I am doing a deep backbend whichHelen doing Kapotasana, yoga pose by Christmas tree is part of the Intermediate Series of Ashtanga Yoga. It is called Kapotasana and although I may look comfortable enough in this pose, it has been a really difficult pose for me to do.  Obviously it requires a great deal of flexibility, this has taken many years of daily practice for me to open my back up. I also find it emotionally and mentally challenging, I think there is something about having my chest that open, it has been very healing and empowering for me.  Recently I noticed that I would start to dread this pose about 5 poses before I got to it.  With this sense of dread I also had a mental dialogue that went something like this “you will never be able to do it today, your body’s too tight/tired/strong. Why are you even trying, blah, blah, blah! ” Once I noticed my little story, I think noticing is often the first step in change,  I started to notice the feeling of dread for what it was, a feeling at the pit of my stomach that I have habitually created.  Sometimes I would even laugh at it.  Sometimes I could do the pose, sometimes I couldn’t, ultimately it doesn’t matter, it’s a yoga pose. Day by day, this sense of dread started to lose it’s power, as it was no longer being fed by my thoughts.

 

Part of my plan in order to be tidier is to wash up immediately after eating.  I was doing washing up with faded picture of kapotasanathis a few days ago and I felt this amazing sense of dread at the pit of my stomach.   When I noticed, I laughed and told my partner about it. Hello dread, I know you, I thought. No wonder I have struggled to make this change in the past, there is so much emotion attached to it, to deal with it requires dealing with not only a lifetime of habits but also all the emotional negative feelings associated with not doing this.  Thanks to yoga, I am able to notice them and let them go. They don’t really relate to here and now, where I am washing up – it’s not  dangerous, there is nothing to dread.  When you make goals for your future, look back at your past and see how you have changed other things, then notice the present moment again and take it one step at a time.

 

Do you have goals yet?  What can you do right now to make them more real? How has yoga helped you?

Balancing Yoga Practice With Life, Love and Challenges

As is the tradition in Ashtanga Yoga, I practice yoga six days a week. The only exceptions are illness or injury, but usually that just means I modify what I practice. Practicing this often is great, for me it’s like brushing my teeth; it’s a non-negotiable part of my day that I love. Practicing daily brings the benefits of practice into my daily life but finding the time for it can still sometimes present a challenge.

 

Helen and Marc walking in Wales

Helen and her partner Marc walking in Wales - After yoga

I have just been to Wales to spend the extended weekend with my family and my partner, I had a lovely time. As I was there to spend time with those I love I found myself thinking about how it can sometimes seem such a selfish act to practice daily.  It is a luxury that I am very grateful to be able to experience fully.  My friends and family are very accepting and know it is part of who I am.

 

In this modern world, full of over productive schedules, taking the time for me can seem selfish. This is especially the case if I or my loved ones are going through challenging times in life. There are obviously occasions when not doing yoga may be the most ethical or safest thing to do. If my house was on fire, for example! In most cases, it is possible to practice yoga and do the right thing by the rest of your life. I am reminded now, of practicing on the day of my father’s funeral, it seemed such a strange thing to do but it helped me stay calm when I read a poem at the funeral and it helped me through the challenging day.

 

Experience has taught me that I am more aware of myself and others and better able to keep calm from practicing yoga and I am therefore able to make a better contribution to my world. I think it is important for everyone to make some time each day to connect with themselves, in whatever way they choose even if it is only 5 minutes. It can seem selfish but in the end I hope it helps everyone. I am very grateful for the time I have for myself and the impact that has on the rest of my life.  How have you overcome challenges in practising yoga?