Making the Case for Slowing it Down

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Teaching yoga in Central America means that I have few regular students. Most students are tourists in town for a week or two who decide to pop in for some yoga classes.  I’ll ask people a little about their practice prior to our first class together to gauge their experience.  I’ve found that I’m often then surprised by what I see on the yoga mat.

Many students tell me they’ve got a regular practice in power yoga or hot yoga and then appear to be beginner students as we move through our flow.  My yoga background includes lots of viniyoga and anusara yoga, which are both practices with a strong focus on alignment and on keeping the body safe.

Photo from The New York Times

Photo from The New York Times

Even when I was training with my vinyasa teachers, there was a strong element of safety woven throughout.  That means that I will not be moving students through a speedy practice if I notice bodies that are wildly out of alignment with the potential to hurt themselves.  I’ll instead spend some time coming into and out of different postures as we focus on specific alignment cues each time.  I’ll then work in some longer holds to help train muscle memory in holding the pose in the body’s most perfect alignment.  That often means that we will be holding an asana for longer than one breath.

Still, some students prefer to flow and move rather than to sit and refine.  I can see them in class, fidgeting with a dust mote on the floor when holding a long lunge low to the earth, checking out their pedicures in a forward bend, or skipping steps in the sequence to move on with it already!!

I can respect this mindset as it’s one that I once held myself.  Part of my evolution as a yoga student, and then a yoga teacher, was to gain a respect for the difference that connecting with alignment in your yoga practice can do.  As your body becomes aligned, yoga hurts less and opens the body more.  Shoulders stack above wrists in plank pose, with head, heart, and hips all in a straight line lowering down to chaturanga dandasana leading with the heart not the head means that suddenly, that persistent shoulder pain you may have been experiencing vanishes.  Learning to draw all the muscles to the midline in one pose suddenly makes other poses more accessible.

It’s interesting to watch the reaction of students who are used to holding bhujangasana, snake pose, for just one breath.  As I cue them to sit in the pose for two or three breaths, I’ll see the shoulders wanting to scrunch closer to the ears as many students dump their weight into their low back.  By staying with the pose, students are not only able to experience the way the posture feels when they’re finally able to soften their shoulder back and down, but also gain some of the extra energetic and physical benefits of the asana.   Each yoga posture holds a myriad of benefits, but you have to sit with the poses for a bit to allow those benefits to sink in.  Expecting anything less is like going out for a run, running for 30 seconds, and then not understanding why you’re not seeing any effects from your new workout.

That said, the practice will usually be a challenging one and I often offer multiple opportunities to flow through the vinyasa sequence of plank-bhujangasana-upward facing dog between poses.  If I notice that I have students of with varying levels of experience in the room, I’ll be sure to offer challenging variations of the asanas to keep everyone interested.  One of the things I love about yoga is that there’s always a new frontier to explore!

I’ve been lucky enough to work individually in private lessons during my travels, and I’ve had several students suddenly find themselves sitting easily in a previously thought to be “unreachable” yoga pose.  This is the beauty of alignment!!  As more poses become accessible to the body, we can then string them together into a flowy, breath-filled asana practice that won’t have your teacher cringing at the front of the room.

So the next time you find yourself in a yoga class that’s not moving as quickly as you’re accustomed to, take gratitude in the reminder to slow down your flow.  Notice your mind wanting to rush ahead to the next pose, and remind yourself that there is no rush.  If we practice yoga only to move on, move on, and move on, you’d be better off starting at shivasana and just taking a nice long nap.

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