12 reasons I practice yoga…(ok, it’s a bit of ego…)

It strikes me that I haven’t written anything about my yoga practice lately.  This has been brought to my attention because I wanted to brag about my latest achievement. Yes folks, I’ve managed to achieve a headstand without the security of a wall behind me.

Now, this may seem very little to you, but it’s taken me bloomin’ months of effort.  I’d have a practice most days.  At first I’d heave my feet upwards and they’d bash against the wall, my shoulders would sink under the weight, and generally I’d topple sideways in an ungainly sack of potatoes way.  Slowly things improved until my toes would just touch lightly on the wall, I’d hold myself straight and drift my legs featherlike to the floor.  I’ve been at that stage for months.  But yesterday…yay… I took a deep breath, held on to my tummy muscles for grim death, and pulled my legs over my head.  It wasn’t easy peasy getting there, but the sense of achievement was stupidly immense.

A couple of weeks ago my yoga teacher gave a lesson in which she asked us to look at ‘letting go of the ego’.  Amongst other things, she asked us to question why we were pushing ourselves to achieve poses and positions that we found difficult.  Did we push ourselves harder than we should to impress?

I’ve mulled over this question quite a lot recently, and I’m not sure I know the definitive answer for me.  In truth, there are many reasons why I practice yoga regularly.  Here’s my top twelve (in no particular order):

  1. To gain muscle tone
  2. To improve balance
  3. To improve flexibility
  4. Escape – there’s no room for other thoughts when you are trying to hold every bit of your body in the correct position whilst concentrating on your breath too.
  5. Getting to know my body – what are ‘normal’ aches and pains, where the tight bits are, which bits need a bit more work
  6. Mindfulness – being aware
  7. Age is no barrier (or size for that matter) – yoga is progressive whatever stage you are at in both your practice and in life
  8. Power – All that balancing, bending, stretching and breathing leaves me feeling like I could do anything. I am woman. I am powerful woman! (in contrast the gym leaves me feeling like I could keel over at any moment).
  9. Strength – Unlike many women in their 60’s I know I can hold my own weight on my hands without too much trouble. This is probably not something many women want to do, but hey, it makes me feel good to know it!  My core is getting stronger too – I’ve moved on from just being able to hold plank pose for a second or two, to hanging on in there for over a minute!
  10. Relaxation – Many people would think they don’t need to ‘learn’ how to relax, but having learnt a few techniques I am quite capable of relaxing my body and brain enough to drift into sleep whenever I want, or need to. Hell, if I work through my relaxation drill I can even manage to nod off in the discomfort of a plane seat!
  11. Exercise – contrary to common belief, yoga is dynamic. Every muscle should be engaged, and it’s not unusual to get hot and a bit puffy after maintaining a pose for a couple of minutes.  It is indeed proper exercise!
  12. Posture – sad to say I’ve always had dodgy posture, but since regular yoga practice I am constantly reminded to stand tall, shoulders back and down, tummy engaged….. I recognise when I’m slumped and slouchy and it’s become (becoming) instinctive to straighten up.

Add to that the friends I’ve made in class you will see that there are plenty of positives.  In fact I’m pretty sure I’ll think of even more as soon as I press ‘post’.  I can’t think of any negatives at all.

I’m aware that not everyone wants to push so hard in their practice, but basically I push myself because I like to and it feels like it’s good for me. I can see the progress. It’s only a little bit about boasting…honestly! 🙂

My world this Wednesday

  • The campaign for the General Election has officially started in England this week. You could say election fever has gripped the nation, but it’s the sort of fever that makes you want to tuck up in bed with the covers over your head.  The campaign so far (and I’m sure it will continue thus) seems to be a succession of party leaders sniping and making snide remarks about each other.  No one in the country has a clue who will come out on top, and it certainly looks like it’s going to be another hung parliament.  I’m just praying that the disgraceful UKIP don’t get a look-in on any coalition.
  • Yesterday,I joined the gym. No, I didn’t think I would either, but apart from their beautiful pool being just soooo inviting, I’ve been feeling generally blobby and lacking in energy, which I put down to being just a teeny bit heavier than I was this time last year. I keep reminding myself that I’m carrying the equivalent of several bags of sugar around with me all the time, and that’s why I’m feeling tired.
    I’m taking my first class today, Yogalates, which is the evil son of Yoga and Pilates.  I’m a little nervous – will all the others be young and fit? Will it be a bit too punishing for me? Will I make an absolute berk of myself (I usually do…should be used to it by now)?  I expect I’ll live through it either way, and I’m looking forward to a good swim and perhaps, a relaxing steam, afterwards.
  • I’ve been trying to tidy up the garden, but it’s so bloomin’ windy, it blows my eyes to the back of my head every time I venture out. It’s been like this for days now.  At the moment the sun is out and through the window it looks quite tempting, but having just got back from walking the dog, I know that that fierce wind bites right through to your bones. Nope, I’m just going to stay here in the warm and look through the window at all the new weeds popping up and thumbing their noses at me.
  • Lunching with a friend tomorrow. We are ‘ladies wot lunch’.  We don’t see each other often, but when we do we like to catch up over a glass of wine and some yummy food.  This is one of the great pleasures of retirement!  I can’t eat too much though, as I have my regular yoga class in the afternoon.  This is another reason I would like to lose a couple of inches from my waist…a spare tyre does get in the way of a good deep forward bend a bit!
  • Easter weekend is coming up. The weekend of chocolate.  I remember when I was little, on Easter Sunday we used to get chocolate eggs in pretty boxes, or wrapped in fancy cellophane.  Now all the eggs seem to come with some chocolate bar or other, in boxes that are basically, just a bit more garish advertising.

    Of course these days chocolate is the only thing that springs to mind for many people when Easter is mentioned.  We should however, spare a thought to it’s origins.  Don’t get me wrong, I am not religious at all, and don’t believe in all that stuff, but it doesn’t hurt to be a little generous to those who do now and again.  At the very least we should take the opportunity to remind ourselves that such barbarism as crucifixion should not be allowed to take place anywhere in the world here in the 21st Century.  As I was, I am sure you will be shocked, though not surprised, when you hear that yes,some terrorists groups still find it acceptable retribution. You may guess who. Whoever wins that General Election, we must hope that, together with all the other world leaders, they intensify their efforts to stamp this out. Soon.

A good sport?

Oh dear, I suppose I’m going to have to do it…write about sports that is.

Anyone who knows me, even remotely, must know that I am, and always have been, rubbish at all and every sport.  I have been told that I ‘mince’ rather than run.  I can’t throw for more than a couple of feet in front of me.  I can’t catch (crummy hand/eye co-ordination).  I can’t kick (but then I am a girl..).  You may as well forget anything that involves a bat or a racket (crummy hand/eye co-ordination again...).  I can’t jump or skate or ski or do anything else other people seem to do with ease and dignity.  Even my bike riding is pants – can’t take my hands off the handle bars without falling off.

Well, you get the picture.  Sports is not my thing.  It’s why I like yoga.  Lots of standing still and laying down. I can just about manage that.  And, and this is a big AND, it’s not competitive (usually,- though I gather there is something called competitive yoga growing in the US, which sounds conflicted to me).

See, not only do I not like playing sport, I don’t much care for that competitive ethos.  It seems to me that for every winner there are a hell of a lot more losers.  The odds are agin’ us being winners. Who wants to expend that much energy to forever have regrets that you were just not good enough.  Certainly not me.

I do, of course, enjoy watching some sporty type thingys.  I really enjoy a bit of brutal rugby union. The thump of the scrum and the ball floating in a perfect pass.  The slow tension of cricket – The stupid names ‘silly mid-off’ ‘googly’.. and the strategy of the spinners and slow bowlers. I especially enjoy the limited over matches, where it really comes down to the wire. Then of course, there is tennis.  The gladiatorial matches between two great players can be epic, but I’m afraid the crushing one sidedness of many of the early matches in a tournament can really be a turn off.

And that’s about it. That’s about the measure of the sports I’d turn on my TV for, and half the time I only turn it on for the highlights even then.

When I was a kid (some time ago now) we used to religiously watch the wrestling on our black and white TV on a Saturday afternoon.  My mum, my dad, my nan, my sister and me, we knew all the wrestlers, and the referees names.  Knew their skills and weaknesses, knew the names of the moves.  Believed the whole shenanigans was real.  We would all cheer when our favourite baddy thumped three times on the mat to ‘give in’  and booed when they cheated and threw themselves on our favourite goody when he wasn’t looking.  Now that was entertainment.

Now I know that is all it was.  It wasn’t sport, it was acting.  Perhaps that’s why I liked it so much. It was non-stop action, albeit carefully choreographed and rehearsed (I’m sure there will be many who object to that description, but its as I understand it).  Perhaps that is why I find other sports so, well, dull, in comparison.  In a real match or game, there are deathly lulls and gross injustices.  The best man doesn’t always win.  Outside factors contribute. The weather, the state of the pitch, an awkward bounce, injury, the list is endless.  Now for some that might add to the excitement, but for me, it feels unfair.  A brilliant cricketer getting out ‘for a duck’ for instance…’give him another go..go on..he can do better than that.. he just missed that’s all, give him another go…’ but it doesn’t work like that.  He just gets to wander back to the pavilion with his bat under his arm and his bruised ego heavy on his shoulders.

Guess it’s time I mentioned the elephant in the room… football.  For some reason football has taken its place in my soul as the most reviled and hated of all sports.  I despise football.  The overpaid little boys that spend their youth kicking a ball from one end of a pitch to the other. Try as I might I fail to see that as being worth the gdp of a small country for each match. The fans are loud and ridiculously partisan with seemingly no acceptance of the opposing teams skills. The clubs charge the fans extortionate amounts for related goods – have you seen the price of football shirts??? Its a disgrace.

Okay, I know I’m in a minority, and most people will be too busy watching the world cup to read this.  I know football is supposed to be our ‘national game’ I’m supposed to love it.  I’m afraid I don’t. I hope the best team wins.  I doubt, from what I’ve heard, that it is going to be England.  Predictably though, I won’t be watching.  After all Wimbledon starts next week….!


Me, the poser

Downward facing dog

Downward facing dog. Not me. If you think I’m going to put a picture up of my efforts you are much mistook!!

Sooooo, since Christmas, in addition to my weekly 90 minute class, I have religiously been doing at least half an hour’s yoga practice every day.  My husband leaves home at about 7:20 in the morning and by half past, I’ve started.  Usually I use one of the standard classes in the Yoga Studio app on my ipad – either intermediate or if I’m feeling ambitious, advanced level.   Its a good, though sometimes challenging, way to start the day.

karnapidasana ear pressure pose

Karnapidasana – Ear Pressure Pose. This is not me, this woman has no tummy….

With all that stretching and bending you would think that by now I would be ready, flexibility wise, to join Cirque Du Soliel, but sadly not.  Ok, I’m probably much more bendy than some others of my age, but my left knee still lets me know quite clearly when it’s over flexed in Fire Log or Head of the Cow, my badly feet make Warrior a lot more challenging than it should be (have I mentioned I’ve got Plantar Fasciitis – it’s a right pain!), and my tummy, though somewhat diminished through over a year’s worth of 5:2 diet, still gets in the way in Ear Pressure Pose (lie down, lift into shoulder stand, drop into plough with your feet behind your head, and then bend your knees and push them against your ears – it’s not pretty, at least not when I do it) and I admit my composure isn’t all it should be when I attempt it – I’m not sure you’re supposed to giggle so much!

Crane Pose - Bakasana

Bakasana – Crane Pose. Also not me…! I doubt I look this good, just as well I can’t see myself!

I guess an hour every day might produce more results, but nonetheless I have felt a massive improvement one way or the other.  Yes, I am a lot more flexible, and my balances have improved in leaps and bounds (can one balance in a leap or a bound…no didn’t think so, but you get the gist).  The real mega improvement though, has been strength wise.  I can hold the plank position for, well, what seems like ages, but is probably no more than a minute or so – much better than the 10 seconds I used to  manage though.  Even better, I’ve been practicing hard and can now, to my delight, get into Crane and hold it for a bit.  Ok, still only seconds rather than minutes, but I’m impressed with myself anyway. Carry on this way, and I may end up like Madonna who’s arms were once described as ‘like dog chews’!!

I’ve probably said it before, but yoga is the one exercise regime that feels like its doing me good rather than killing me off.  I feel like I can achieve anything, and because it is progressive can find some improvement with practically every session.  When I finish I can feel every muscle and sinew, so I know I’ve still got ’em and have not turned to putty just yet.  And without wishing to sound all new age, and arty farty, it’s good for the soul too, a bit of inwardlooking meditation or mindfulness really does give your mind a rest from problems and hum-drummery (no, I don’t think that’s a real word either, but hey, I like it).

Pigeon pose

Pigeon with forward fold – nope, still not me. Though I love this pose even though its a bit hurty!

Oh, and the other thing, all those Downward Dogs and Pigeons with Forward Folds are really good at stretching me ol’ feet, and the faciitis is slowly getting better.  Win win I’d say.

Savasana - corpse pose

Savasana – Corpse Pose. Ok, not me, but I’m really, really, proficient at this one, and a picture of me in this pose would look very similar I promise you!

Well I’m off to practice my favourite pose – Savasana (corpse pose) for a bit. After all, it is the bit at the end that we all like best, don’t we?

Me, the Poser

Triangle Pose

Triangle Pose

I practice yoga  (that’s not me in the picture, by the way, I wouldn’t dream of letting anyone take my picture while I’m posing!)  I remember telling someone that once and they responded, rather sniffily, ‘you mean a bit of stretching’.  I felt quite aggrieved.  Yes, it is a bit of stretching, but so much more too.

I go to a class once a week at the beautiful Jasmine Trust Yoga Centre.  At this time of year, we practice in soft lights with no music and no mirrors to distract us.  It is a time for us to internalise, to listen to our breath and try different breathing exercises along with the postures and poses.

Now many people might pooh pooh the breathing exercise stuff.  I admit I was a bit sceptical at first and certainly, even now, I don’t necessarily find them all useful and sometimes find them a bit absurd (alternate nostril breathing is one I find hard to take seriously for instance), but the main point, it seems to me, is to drag your mind away from its noise of troubles: I’m cross (see previous post), what’s for tea, need to do the ironing, what’s the women next to me doing etc.  instead you concentrate entirely on your breathing.  Sometimes, its short broken breaths, others so deep that your entire body feels light and full of air. It’s calming and meditative.

We also use breathing to help with postures, and stretching – an out breath can give you a little bit more effort in a twisting posture for instance, and Carolyn’s chanting of ‘take a nice easy breath, breathing out as you turn…..’ maintains the atmosphere of calm even when you’re feeling decidedly unstable, or the position feels like its pulling you in two directions at once.

mountain pose

Mountain Pose

Yesterday, at class, we used straps to pull us in to shapes our bodies were trying quite hard to resist, well, at least mine was.  Can’t say I enjoyed it much, I prefer the pure and powerful feeling of achieving (or trying to achieve) the poses without aids. Even just to simply stand firmly, straight and still, with two feet planted together in mountain pose for a few minutes feels surprisingly strong.

So ok, I’m getting on a bit, and not as flexible as I used to be, and am never going to be able to get my feet behind my head, or balance my crosslegged body on my hands. In fact, I dread to think what I look like sometimes, what with all the bridges, and bending and stuff, but each time I practice I get just a little bit stronger, bendier and calmer, which can’t be all bad!

It’s just killing me

I walk, I practice yoga, I do housework, I garden (a bit, in fine weather) I occassionally have a go on the wii too, but apart from that I don’t do exercise. We do have a cross-trainer sitting dustily amongst the books and papers in our study, and every now and then I’ll have a spurt of enthusiasm and go on it every evening for a week or two. If I haven’t started feeling the benefit, or losing a pound or two after that, and I never have, I give up and months will go by before its pedals are turned again.

I have this theory see, that once you reach a certain age, too much exercise stops doing you good and starts killing you off. It certainly feels that way. After ten minutes on gym equipment, of any sort, I am puffing and sweating, and frankly, just need a lie down. My heart is a muscle that works hard enough keeping me alive, anything over and above that is just wearing it out quicker! That’s why I appreciate yoga so much. It makes me feel stronger rather than weaker. My brain isn’t addled by my lungs failing to suck in enough air like it is for five minutes after a gym workout. I feel good. I feel invincible. I believe I am a warrior!

Trouble is yoga alone isn’t keeping me in shape. I might feel like a warrior, but I certainly don’t look like one. I’m guessing I should cut down on calories, deny myself wine and sweet things, and then I might revert back to my young slim self. It is a cruel fact, that in my youth I hated being thin. Hated my scrawny limbs, and my shapeless torso. I still cringe when I remember being fitted for a bridesmaids dress, which to start with I was so excited about, until my aunt, who was the dressmaker, said she didn’t need to measure me all over because I was just straight up and down. And I was. Twiggy was a chubster compared to me!

The truth is, I believe we all look better with a bit of chubbiness, certainly as we get older (I give you Victoria Beckham vs Nigella!) It fleshes out the wrinkles, and makes us look robust and healthy. Many oldies get bent and boney, their faces sunken. Well I’m blowed if I’m going to let that happen to me.

No, its alright, I’m not going to get obese, and I’ll do enough to keep healthy, but just maybe I’ll be satisfied to stay a little bit bigger than I’d really like to be, so that should I ever be graced with grandchildren I’ll be a proper, cuddly grandma.