How to improve your yoga practice

Yoga for beginners: 5 simple tips for taking your practice to the next level, according to a yoga teacher

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Think that yoga is all downward dogging and stretching? Think again. Yoga teacher Áine Donnellan explains how to ‘get better’ at yoga, whether you’re a total novice or long-time yogi. 

Many of us turned to yoga during the pandemic as a remedy for the stress caused by increasing levels of global uncertainty. In March 2020, the online search interest for yoga in the UK hit record highs, with the peak lasting longer than any previously recorded spike.

It’s no wonder that yoga became such a popular activity: regular yogis rave about the ’improved vitality’ they gain from practising, while some studies claim that yoga might be a useful tool in managing depression. It’s also an accessible form of movement that can be done pretty much anywhere, so long as you have something comfy to wear.

However, if you’ve only just come to yoga, your practice may serve as a regular reminder that you’re not as flexible or strong as you want to be. Or perhaps being on the mat is the one quiet time when you can’t help but dwell on your ever-growing to-do list. If this sounds like you, here are five steps to improving your practice.  

Find your intention – it’ll lead you to the perfect style of yoga

There are more than 100 different types of yoga, so no matter why you’re looking to take up the practice, there will be one school to suit your needs. Your age, size or fitness level don’t limit your choice of style, as there are modifications for every yoga pose, within all styles. Instead, it all comes down to what you want to achieve with your practice.

Are you looking for a workout, a way to reduce stress and anxiety, to connect with your inner-self or just to get a bit more flexible? Sit down with a notepad, and do an honest check-in with yourself. Taking the time to define your intentions behind picking up yoga will see your motivation to practice surge. Once you’ve figured out the purpose behind your yoga journey, it’s time to start trying different styles.

There are four distinct avenues to choose between:

  1. At home practice
  2. Classes at a gym
  3. Studio classes that offer a variety of styles 
  4. Classes in a niche-studio, offering a specific style of yoga (like ashtanga yoga and kundalini yoga)
Decide on your intention and the right yoga class will come to you.
Decide on your intention and the right yoga class will come to you.

Each avenue comes with a unique set of benefits and challenges, so ponder which one would suit your needs and intentions best.

Sometimes the only way to know for sure, is to try it out – so hop into something comfy and get experimenting. Same goes for the style of yoga you’re looking to follow; it may take a while until you find The One, but once you do, you’ll know.

Teachers will also have a major impact on your yoga experience, so be open to new classes until you find one that truly speaks to you. If you get the match right, it will feel as though you’re communicating both verbally and nonverbally during your sessions, through the exchange of energy occurring in class. If this sounds too woo-woo for your liking, hop onto the next point.  

Read up on the philosophical side of yoga – it’s not all about the poses

Yoga asana is just one of the eight paths that make up yoga more generally and yoga in its purest form is something that we could and should be trying to practise every day. In the West, most of us think of exercise and meditation when we think of yoga but in its original form, stretches are only a very small part of the practice. The physical, mental and spiritual system aims at unifying the body and mind – the Sanskrit word ‘yoga’ itself, means union.

Apart from the asanas, the other seven paths of yoga are made up of: 

  1. Yamas (attitudes towards the world)
  2. Niyamas (attitude towards ourselves)
  3. Pranayama (breath work)
  4. Prathayara (withdrawal of the senses)
  5. Dharana (concentration)
  6. Dhyana (meditation)
  7. Samadhi (enlightenment)

So, by helping a friend, focusing on your breath while sitting on the sofa, speaking your truth or learning a new skill, you’re technically practicing yoga.

There are plenty of resources online allowing for deep-dives into the yogic world. If you find this stuff fascinating, there are also loads of books to introduce you to the topic. Autobiography of a Yogi, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice are all highly regarded reads within the yoga community. 

If you’re not interested in the spiritual aspects, then you’re perfectly fine sticking to following the practice on your own terms. This openness reflects the essence of yoga – it’s an inclusive activity, left up to individual interpretation.  

Forget about looks, focus on feeling

When performing yoga asanas, rather than forcing your body into a picture-perfect position, try scaling back until each posture feels right for you. And let each practice unfold the way it naturally does. Our minds can be our best friends – but also our worst enemies, and there’s no exception to this rule when it comes to yoga. A big part of yoga is working on your relationship with your mind, recognising which thoughts serve you and which ones you should aim to let go of.

The first thought you should work on dropping is the idea of what a pose ‘should’ look like, compared to the shapes that you are creating. Letting the mind connect with the body to find exactly where it wants to go in each posture will completely transform your practice. 

By shifting your mindset, your practice will go from an experience of self-judgement to one of deep connection. It’s at that moment that you’ll start feeling into that ‘zen-ness’, which will leave you craving more.  

Learn to love (or tolerate) the things you loathe

Let’s say that your right arm is stronger than your left. When doing a pose that uses the strength of the weaker arm, your brain will tell you to stop sooner than when performing the same one with the stronger arm. Listen to our brain, however, and you’ll create an even bigger imbalance in your body. It’s the same with certain aspects of yoga; maybe you struggle with sharing, cleanliness or feelings of discontent, meaning you’ll gain the most from focusing on those areas.

The poses, exercises or practices we want to avoid are usually the ones we need the most. Challenge yourself to stay in savasana if you crave to finish the practice, or hold that chair pose for two more breaths if the thought of it makes you want to squirm. 

By breathing through the discomfort, you can push through mental barriers. That inevitably leads to feelings of empowerment and autonomy. The rewards of this practice will creep up on you, both on and off the mat. 

Stop trying – embrace the art of letting go

At first sight, this advice may sound counter-productive and downright ridiculous. To get better at twisting your body into impossible-looking shapes, you should just stay on the sofa? When it comes to your movement practice, the concept of ‘letting go’ refers more to your state of mind than anything else.

If you step onto your mat and do the best with what you’ve got, whatever follows will be enough and ‘right’. What that looks like will vary from day to day, so again, aim to let go of the external and move internally. Letting go of mental and physical blockages is a difficult task which takes practice, and it requires continuous effort. But the freedom you gain from this action will provide you with more energy than achieving it requires.

Tuning into the present, sharpening all senses and being mindful of each breath, movement and feeling that arise throughout your practice, will help you get into your flow on the mat. And the same things will help you stay in that state of mind off the mat.

By figuring out what you want out of yoga, reading up on yogic philosophy, favouring feeling over form and pushing through limiting self-beliefs, your practice will become uniquely yours. And that’s when the magic connection will happen, as told by yogic enthusiasts for centuries down the line. Your practice will be what you make out of it, so go create your own fortune and prepare to reap the rewards.  

Get stronger so you can hold those poses for longer, with one of our 15-minute mobility classes.

Images: Getty

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