Imagine yourself floating, as if weightless, through calm waters. Now imagine you’re suspended somewhere in that place of conscious recognition just before you fall asleep – that sensation of complete physical surrender and of total relaxation is what Yoga Nidra is all about.
We all know that yoga is a great complement for other sports, but can other sports enhance our yoga practice?
Since lockdown began, back in the dawn of time – or just over three months ago – many of us have branched out into other forms of exercise, the most obvious one being more regular walking for our ‘daily exercise’.
Some of us have tried cycling again for the first time in years, others have become Joe Wickes devotees and some have dusted off our running shoes and started jogging again. But will we keep up these extra forms of exercise, and more importantly – should we?
Yoga and Running
Often as yogis, we’re told that yoga is the ONLY exercise we need to do. But that depends on what you call yoga. According to Patanjali’s famous sutras,
Yoga is the stilling of the movement of the mind
and any runner will tell you that the calming effect on the mind is the single best thing about running.
The thing about yoga is that on the whole it is practiced inside. And while we’ve been in lockdown, we have needed to get out of the four walls of our homes and into the great outdoors – or the urban outdoors. I’ve been a yogi and runner for nearly ten years now and I’ve found that the two are excellent co-habiters.
Running increases your heart rate, burns calories, boosts your mood and improves joint health; while yoga opens your hips, lengthens and stretches muscles and tendons, and strengthens the muscles around the knees. While running takes you out of yourself, yoga brings you into yourself.
Should you run and do yoga on the same day? It depends on what your yoga and run will be like. If you’re training for a marathon, then no. If you’re doing a quick 5k, then yes.
Whatever your main focus is, do that activity first. So if you’re doing the running to improve your yoga, then do your yoga practice first, and vice versa.
Yoga and Weight Training
The great Carrie Owerko said in her recent interview that if you want to build muscles, you’re going to have to do some lifting!
From the age of just thirty years old, you will start to lose muscle mass, a process called sarcopenia. This is part of the natural ageing process, but it can be prevented.
If you’re a super-flexible yogi, your problem won’t be making the shapes of the poses but holding them safely. By doing some gentle, regular weight training, you’ll build strength around the joints, making your yoga practice safer. If you have a student that keeps getting injuries due to hyper-mobility, then it might be worth suggesting that they look into adding some weight training into their week.
Yoga and Cycling
I have some very keen cyclists in my yoga classes, and there’s no doubt that yoga helps to stretch out their thighs and open up the hip connectors, as well as the front of the shins and ankles. But can cycling improve our yoga?
Like running, cycling is an aerobic activity that will boost your cardiovascular health. Since lockdown began, sales of bicycles have gone through the roof, as a form of exercise, and also to avoid getting on public transport.
Cycling is also a resistance activity so it builds muscle around the glutes, hamstrings, quads, and calves. For people that work from home, which over the last three months has been nearly everyone, our glutes have had to put up with being sat on – a lot. Cycling helps to strengthen these important muscles, which consequently support the hips and spine.
So for those standing poses that need hamstring and glute strength – think Warrior 1 and Warrior 3, and the tricky Revolved Half Moon pose – cycling could give you an extra boost. But cycling can also cause muscles to become very tight, so be sure to include lots of poses to stretch out the front of the legs in your yoga practice.
Yoga and HIIT
HIIT, or High-Intensity Interval Training, is a hugely popular form of workout. It involves a short burst of intense exercise (as the name suggests) before a rest period, and usually lasts for 15 – 20 minutes. But does this highly energetic form of exercise have anything in common with yoga?
Research shows that HIIT (as compared to moderate forms of exercise) is linked with increasing levels of cardiovascular fitness, boosting aerobic capacity, and the ability of the body to absorb oxygen to make energy. It can also increase muscle mass, which as we know starts to decline from the tender age of 30.
There are already forms of yoga that incorporate this principle: Rocket yoga, power yoga, dynamic vinyasa flow. All these types of yoga will increase your heart rate quickly, and get your sweat up.
If you’ve found that your yoga practice has slipped into a slightly slumberous lockdown rut, then incorporating the principles of HIIT into your practice could be the wake-up call you need. And if you’re a yoga teacher, perhaps your students could do with a high-intensity sun salutation or jumping session to give them an energy boost.
Yoga and Walking
Most of us have been doing a lot of good, old-fashioned walking during the lockdown. Walking is a great way to keep healthier, get outside, and help to reduce polluting the world while we’re at it. Hopefully, this change in habits is something that people will stick to now the lockdown is starting to be eased.
Walking regularly brings all sorts of health benefits, and keeps your bones healthy, and is especially important for those with osteoporosis. Research has also shown that yoga can help increase bone density, so together these forms of exercise can work to keep your bones healthy.
Walking is also a great time to practice mindfulness and to walk off the stresses and strains of a day spent inside at your desk.
While all the above forms of exercise can complement your yoga practice, it’s important to remember what your focus is. Yoga is not just the physical asanas, not just the awareness of the breath, but a path to yourself, and, if you seek it, spiritual enlightenment.
While the body is important, it’s where physical health leads us that is the important factor. Use the methods of yoga in all other forms of exercise that you do, to achieve mental stillness. And make sure that you do all forms of physical exercise (including yoga) in a balanced way – as overdoing any of it will lead to exhaustion and injury.
One of our own – Peter Ogazi – trained with YogaLondon back in 2011. Currently a secondary school teacher as well, he’s taught a wide range of students since then through his business ‘yogazi’. He is a fighter for social justice, deeply chilled, strong, and, by his own admission, a private person. So we appreciate his chatting to us about all things yoga even more.
1. How did you get into yoga?
I’ve been a practitioner of yoga for a good twenty-odd years. I got into yoga because I was originally into martial arts and kickboxing, and someone from that world told me that yoga would improve my practice. So I went along to the Buddhist center in Manchester city centre and I found that not only did it improve my martial arts practice quite considerably, it also enhanced other aspect of my life too. So I started going quite regularly, till I noticed that I was more relaxed and that I had got rid of a hell of a lot of anger.
2. What prompted you to become a yoga teacher?
Encouraged by this I trained to become a teacher with YogaLondon in 2011. I think another thing that prompted me to become a teacher was that I felt there was a need for yoga in Afro-Caribbean and working communities. There’s a stereotypical idea of a yoga teacher that can put some people off. Personally, it’s never bothered me that on most occasions I’m the only person of colour at yoga events – it’s never made me feel uncomfortable. But there is a need for it to be spread out wider, so that’s maybe why I became a yoga teacher.
3. How has yoga changed you as a person?
Yoga has changed me quite considerably. I used to be quite an anxious person socially, but it helped me to chill out more and to be more comfortable in my own skin. When you’ve done yoga regularly for a long time and then you don’t do it, you realise that you’re missing it, and that’s when you know it’s having a positive effect.
4. What’s your home practice like?
My home practice is quite good. I’m quite regular with it. But, these days I don’t go at it like I did when I first qualified as a teacher. Back then I was doing it twice a day – I almost became a perfectionist. But it got to the point when I did have to cool down a little because I was becoming very, very tired. I still practice, but now it’s three or four times a week and not twice a day.
5. What type of yoga do you practice?
Recently I’ve been doing a lot of yin yoga and I’m really feeling the benefits of adding it to my practice. I’ve done a little bit of Iyengar, and from there I started doing Ashtanga yoga and that became my favourite, along with Vinyasa flow. I’ve done a little bit of hot yoga as well but I didn’t really take to that.
6. What would you still like to do with your yoga teaching?
Three years ago I set up a community interest company with the aim of spreading yoga to hard-to-reach groups, which I ran for about two years. Through this CIC I collaborated with the Manchester Mental Health & Social Care Trust and ran yoga classes for people with varying degrees of mental health problems, such as clinical depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia. I also worked with disadvantaged young people who were on the verge of social exclusion. Plus the Greater Manchester Fire Service as well. I also worked for Christie’s Hospital here in Manchester and taught yoga to people with various types of cancer.
I’m thinking of doing this again and sticking to it. In the last couple of years, I’ve been working at a secondary school and that’s taken up a lot of my time and I’ve had to cut down on my yoga classes and I knock CIC on the head. In the future, I can see myself going down that route again, and making it a lot more sustainable.
7. What are your yoga goals?
I’ve wanted to do a retreat for a while, but the only thing that’s put me off is that I’m quite a private person – I need my own space. I imagine being on a yoga retreat you’re around people 24/7 and you’re the centre of attention all the time. I could collaborate with other yoga teachers to make it work.
8. You’ve taught a wide range of students. How do you adapt your classes for less able students?
As soon as you walk into a room you get the energy. I’ve taught various groups, so for instance with a group of young people with learning difficulties I’m not going to be teaching an experienced ashtanga class, I’ll teach them some chair yoga, basic moves, and basic breath exercises.
When I teach boxers and martial artists they want more dynamic stuff and to keep on moving, I wouldn’t go in there and start singing Oms. You have to adapt each class to their particular needs.
9. What would your advice be to someone who’s thinking about becoming a yoga teacher?
To be very, very open-minded. To be clear and concise when you’re teaching, and not to make assumptions. Avoid what I call flimmy flammy language and make yourself understood. I also avoid music in classes because music is such a personal choice and can be quite off-putting.
And it can be quite hard and challenging. It’s not the stereotype of what a yoga teacher is, almost a permanent holiday with a smile on your face. But the rewards definitely outweigh the negatives.
10. How important is humour in yoga?
You have to have a sense of humour, most definitely! There’s a time and a place for things to be serious. It’s very, very important to have a sense of humour sometimes and not take things too seriously, particularly when you’re in an intimate space with people and everything’s quiet and then all of sudden maybe someone farts!
11. In your opinion, how can the yoga industry improve the representation of POC, both as teachers and students?
We need to show that it’s not just middle-class white women that do this. In magazines and general media, it would be very, very beneficial to have more representation out there as that attracts more people. As I’ve said before, just the fact that I’m teaching yoga attracts people. When I started teaching in a community centre up here I got a wide range of clients – not just people of colour, but from white working-class backgrounds – just the simple fact that I was a little bit different, and didn’t fit into the stereotype of what a yoga teacher should be, gave them the confidence to come to the class.
As well as that, we need more men doing yoga. A lot of men assume that yoga is just for women and I’ve had to break that stereotype down. When I taught male boxers and martial artists they thought was just going to be a ‘little stretch’ and after 20 minutes, I kid you not, they’re all crying and making all sorts of noises because they’re working muscles and ligaments that they’ve never worked before!
Also, a lot of men these days of a certain age don’t know where they are, and how they fit into the world. They’re quite angry as well, and yoga can be very, very beneficial in calming them down. A yoga class can offer them not only a sense of community but also offers balance and a way to chill out.
12. Describe what yoga means to you in three words.
It’s such an all-encompassing part of my life that it’s hard to think of three, but definitely relaxation, profound and chilled.
Check out Peter’s website at Yogazi
Every yogi knows how delicious it is to truly relax in śavāsana – that wonderful sensation of calm and serenity as you gently emerge from your mat to engage with the rest of your day. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to capture that sensation at other times of the day? Don’t you just want to be able to tap into that feeling of clarity and calm to help you more often. Not just when you have yoga class but every… single… day… forever… and ever. Shall I let you into a secret? You can! Read on and I’ll tell you how.
The Magic of Savāsana
Savāsana, or corpse pose, is one of the most powerful yoga poses we can do. Often it is thought of as ‘just relaxation’ but it is so, so much more. It has incredibly powerful effects upon the body and the way its systems work. These effects are often described as ‘soothing the nervous system’ because of the direct effect upon the parasympathetic (or calming) part of the nervous system. Sometimes called the ‘rest and digest’ response, these effects come from direct stimulation of the vagus nerve.
The vagus nerve is the longest of the 12 cranial nerves. It runs directly from the brain-stem (the most primitive part of the brain found in the base of the skull) to the heart and all the way on to the intestines. Stimulation of this nerve brings about some amazing changes in the body. It causes reduced heart rate and blood pressure; reduced skeletal muscular tension and increased muscular contractions of the gut which improve digestion; improved blood flow to the skin and reduction in secretion of stress hormones.
These changes are felt by us as calmness and clarity of mind; a feeling of well-being; improved digestion, sleep and often more emotional control. Even more important than making us feel good though, stimulation of the vagus nerve helps to reduce the damaging effects of prolonged stress on the body. It does this by reducing the risk of developing stress-related conditions like diabetes, strokes and heart attacks. It also helps to manage stress-related problems like insomnia, migraines, headaches, muscular aches and joint pains – with some sufferers reporting a really dramatic drop in their symptoms. Result!
The Savāsana Solution
Unfortunately knowing how śavāsana works doesn’t solve the problem of finding time to do it when we are all busy living our lives. But the good news is that you don’t need to relax for 10 or 15 minutes to gain all those benefits – a couple of minutes is enough when you know how. And you don’t even need to lie down: you can do śavāsana sitting down. I have even tried it standing up before, but I wouldn’t recommend it!
Now, may I introduce you to… (drum roll, drum roll…) – the mini-śavāsana. And what is a mini-śavāsana? I hear you cry! Well, a mini-śavāsana is your answer to all those stressed times at work and at home. Maybe the home-schooling is getting fraught or the boss is winding you up. Deadlines are looming and are you short on sleep? You need a mini-śavāsana. It is incredible – a real life-saver at times and SO easy to do.
So How Do I Mini-śavāsana?
Firstly – recognise when you need to mini-śavāsana. Are you feeling wound up? Or low on energy? Maybe you need a boost to get through a meeting. Or you need to clear your head. All of these will be solved by a mini-śavāsana. Have I convinced you yet? I DO hope so.
Next – where should I do it? Ideally somewhere private so you are not disturbed. A quiet room is ideal. You can lie down if you want to or sit if it is more convenient – on the floor or a chair, whichever you prefer. A park bench is great too if you are out and about. I have actually been known to sneak off to the toilet and sit there for a few minutes if there was no where else to go.
And then… close your eyes. Use a trick to help you relax. Maybe a quick body scan from the top of head to the tips of your toes where you consciously ‘let go’ of each part of the body as you move over it. Some folk can leg go of tension in the whole body at the same time and others work a system round arms, legs, trunk in turn. Maybe you’ll find another way to settle into a relaxed state. Have a go and see what works for you.
Once relaxed, focus on the breath or a colour or image that you like to help to still the mind and hold that for a short while. And enjoy …. 1 or 2 minutes really is enough to gain benefit, it is SO quick. You can set a timer if you want to or just see when your body is ready to come out of it naturally. And notice how you feel – I guarantee you’ll feel better. Calmer, cooler and things will be clearer.
Why I Love Mini-śavāsana
As a Tall Ship sailor many years ago, I learned a knack of closing my eyes for just a couple of minutes whenever the broken sleep and rigorous lifestyle got the better of me. I was not asleep – I knew exactly what was going on around me and could ‘snap out of it’ in a second and get back to work. Later in life I took up yoga and realised that all those years ago I had instinctively learned how to do śavāsana and loved the longer relaxation that I discovered in my yoga classes. But I never let go of my mini-śavāsana’s – they still sustain me through some of life difficult and more challenging times. They are my little ‘fix’ of yoga when I need it to ground me. I do SO love them. And I think you will too. Namaste.
The secret to survive lockdown is have a routine. Learn a new skill. Clear your to-do list. Simple. Yet life in lockdown appears deceptively the same, but in reality something is out there… lurking…