Tips, tricks and suggestions to help you get more from your yoga practice, all approved by the Strong Women team.
I think that yoga is the ultimate Marmite exercise. Those who love it really love it, but for the rest of us, it can be hard to get into. Even those of us who stick to dedicated workout routines, be it strength training four times a week or hitting a weekly running goal, can find being consistent with their stretching difficult.
Part of the reason, perhaps, is that we always assume that to do yoga you already have to be extra bendy or extra mindful. For those who can’t get nail a triangle pose or struggle with sitting still for 30 seconds, let alone meditating, it can feel as though they are failing.
This, of course, is not true. No one is born able to headstand for 10 minutes. Everyone has to start somewhere on their yoga journey.
The benefits of practising are too huge to miss, from improving mental health to supporting muscle recovery from your training. So we really should all be taking time to slow down and stretch – but we need to make it enjoyable. That’s why we asked the Strong Women community, from our editors to our readers, to give their tips on how to feel more confident, find postures easier and make yoga work for us. Take one or all of them on board, and see how you feel.
1) Go it alone
“I’ve tried classes and personally find I’m too self-conscious, so I bought a mat and made space for it at a time of the day that works for me,” says Stylist’s digital writer Megan Murray. “Not having anyone around really helps me enjoy it, and I follow Yoga with Adriene on YouTube who is super chatty and natural but calming in the way she guides you through.”
2) Do it pre-workout
Yoga doesn’t have to be a traditional 30-minute practice in a dimly lit room with incense burning. Squeezing it in where you can is key for Strong Women reader Claudia. “I enjoy it more at the beginning of my workout as this gives me a heightened body awareness for my training. It helps me feel like I have control of my body and of every single muscle. It is hard in the sense that it takes a lot to see improvement but you eventually will. I started with just five minutes of focus on one specific group of muscles and then kept adding every time, and it’s made it so much more enjoyable and rewarding.”
3) Let go of expectations
Of course you’re going to hate yoga if you go in to class assuming you’ll be asked to put your leg behind your head. Instead, “try to have fun with yoga, this way the experience will be more enjoyable,” says yoga teacher Donna Noble. “Not worrying how the posture looks and focusing on how it makes you feel will get you out of your head. Let the body take over instinctively and have no expectations of the class. You may be surprised to realise that your body can do more than you think. It is not the body that is stiff, it’s the mind that’s stiff.”
4) Use music
“Sound or music can be a very powerful meditative technique to calm the mind, helping with stress and anxiety. It can deliver a powerful new component to the practice, fuelling each practitioner with childlike curiosity, creating a united sense of joy which flows with harmony and longevity,” says We Are Boogie Sound founder Keri Perkins. “Music – like yoga – is healing; it connects you to your true self and to others, and it’s also just heaps of fun.”
5) Forget long stretches
Put me in a gym and I can train away an hour and a half without a second thought. Put me on the mat and suddenly 60 minutes lasts a lifetime. So my solution is simple: don’t practise for that long! I can happily get through 20 minutes and feel the benefits, so that’s what I do. The way I see it is that it’s better to spend a shorter amount of time really applying myself than sit there for longer feeling fidgety and impatient. After all, who made the rule that yoga had to go on forever?
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6) Visualise the benefits
We spend so long thinking about how we will perform during the class that we forget the real benefits come afterwards. Switching your thinking is what helped Strong Women editor Meriam Ahari love practicing, and for her the effects have to be visual. “For example, while you’re stretching your hamstrings, try to imagine that with every breath you take, oxygen is going into those muscles and helping to heal and strengthen them. It’s a good way to distract yourself if you’re bored out of your mind, but the brain is also a very powerful tool and being more mindful of what you’re doing and why can help,” she says.
“Visualisations during certain moves also help to stabilise me. For instance, during tree pose, I imagine my feet have roots and then are tunnelling deep into the ground and that someone is pulling on my hands, up towards the sky. That enables my body to really elongate and the opposing pulls help me to balance – which I usually struggle with.”
7) Focus on the breathwork
“Quite simply, yoga begins with the breath. If you are able to let your mind rest purely on the breath, then the shapes that you make with your body are largely irrelevant. Don’t try to bite off more than you can chew – slow down, breathe, get curious and play! The rest will follow,” says yoga teacher and member of the Strong Women Collective Annie Clarke.
8) Take modifications
“The one thing that has helped me enjoy yoga is being shown the modifications for non-flexibile people. It’s OK to not be bendy!” says a Strong Women reader. In fact, modifying for your own body is the only way to practise – you’ll never go back to the mat if you injure yourself or feel out of your depth.
9) Pick a style
“Yin yoga, where you hold poses for long periods, is a style you might have to grow towards as you might find your mind wandering and not able to relax into almost doing nothing. Whereas a more dynamic yoga flow might be easier initially if you’ve come from a more active background,” says pilates instructor Aimee Long. “I’d say trial all different styles, see what suits you best and stick at it for a couple of weeks and it will definitely become far easier and more enjoyable.”
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10) Enjoy your environment
As with everything in life, comfort is key. “I am not a yogi, so for me it’s all about creating a cosy and aesthetically pleasing environment. I make myself coffee or tea, have scented candles on, pick the lighting (either curtains open with light streaming in if it’s the morning or dimmed light if it’s the evening) and wear something super comfortable,” says fitness trainer and member of Strong Women Collective Emma Obayuvana.
11) Use blocks
“Don’t be ashamed or afraid to use yoga blocks,” says yoga teacher and personal trainer Shona Vertue. “They can help facilitate better execution of postures and in some cases even help to develop more strength.”
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Image: Getty / Unsplash
Chloe Gray is the senior writer for stylist.co.uk's fitness brand Strong Women. When she's not writing or lifting weights, she's most likely found practicing handstands, sipping a gin and tonic or eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (not all at the same time).