December 23rd 2016
Beginners' yoga: finding my vinyasa flow
January 30th 2015
In the first in our new series, our resident yoga beginner chronicles her first steps going from timber to limber
Flexibility has never been a strength of mine. More yeti than I am yogi, my sense of balance, finesse and coordination is akin to a Thunderbird caught in a tornado. It isn’t pretty.
However despite my obvious shortcomings, I’ve always been drawn to trying yoga. An unlikely partner to my puppet-like limbs, my intrigue stems from hearing devotees’ almost evangelical accounts of how it’s benefitted both their bodies and minds. Having never been the best at dealing with anxiety, stress and sleeplessness in the past, I wondered whether this could prove to be the perfect fitness fix for me in terms of helping bridge the gap between soul, spirit and hopefully, a flat stomach.
So cue my yoga journal, a series of features where I’ll be chronicling my journey into the world of yoga. Each month, I’ll be trying out a different style and relaying my adventures - the good, the bad and the ugly.
This month I signed up for 30 days of vinyasa flow yoga at the aptly named, Stretch London. Launched by former DJ and Producer Carl Faure and the enviably lean and lovely Sophie Whippy, the studio proved to be the perfect place to start my transformation from timber to limber. With each class catering to a wide range of levels, its group of experienced teachers were incredible at providing an amazing level of attention to each and every student to make sure I never put a foot wrong. No matter how much I tried....
What exactly is vinyasa flow yoga?
This fluid, almost dance-like branch of yoga is all about connecting your breath with movement in a series of smooth flowing postures.
Is vinyasa flow yoga for me?
“Vinyasa flow is great for people that like to move and is great for busy minds and active bodies, as the movement brings us to a place of inner stillness and calm - perfect for Londoners!” says Stretch’s Carl Faure.
Carl’s top tips for anyone new to yoga
“If you're new to yoga practice, first off, take your time,” says Carl. “You won't master it in a day, a week, a month and arguably a lifetime, so why push yourself? Listen to your body - listen for when movement feels easy and there's space… back away from any pain, and just learn to breath. The rest will happen when it's ready. Find a teacher you trust and inspires joy in your practice.”
So what happened when this Thunderbird hit go? Having signed up for three classes a week over a four week period, I braced myself to wave my wooden-limbed woes goodbye...
Week 1: A Downward Duck out of water...
Ever been to a party where everyone’s doing a dance that you just don’t know how to do? That pretty much summed up my first ever yoga class. But boy was it a routine that I wanted to learn. ‘This is unlike any kind of exercise that I’ve ever done,’ I kept on thinking, unable to stop my head from buzzing while trying to move from High Plank to Downward Dog without toppling over and trying to hide my winter-worn pair of trotters that had been happily hibernating in my boots for the last few months.
This week was all about learning the basics and my biggest challenge arose strangely enough with regards to er, my breathing. Or more specifically, correctly linking it to the movements. Having gotten used to associating exhalation with exertion in other forms of exercise, acclimatising to inhalations to move to particular yoga postures was taking a little getting used to.
Perfecting the Ujjayi breath was proving especially difficult. ‘Ujjay-what,’ I hear you say? I’m glad you asked. In a nutshell, it’s a conscious type of deep breathing whereby you narrow the throat passage as you inhale and exhale. The result is a sound reminiscent of a rushing ocean. I however, sounded more like Darth Vader with a snoring problem.
With some practice under my belt, my snort is starting to smooth out and I’m beginning to see my breath as an aid rather than a hindrance. ‘Inhale into Upward Dog and exhale into Downward Dog’ is fast becoming my yoga mat mantra.
However, my inner perfectionist keeps making me acutely aware of my bent legs and inability to hold a posture for longer than three seconds. Feeling more Downward Duck than Dog, I’m becoming increasingly frustrated with myself. That being said, I haven't left a class feeling like I never want to come back. In fact, quite the contrary. This is something I want to get the knack of and I’m already seeing the effect that the mixture of meditation, yoga practice and breathing is having on my stress levels.
Inner monologue: ‘I reeeeaallly need a pedicure...’
Win: Following my introduction to headstands and shoulder stands, I managed to do a shoulder stand without tipping over and falling on my fellow practitioners like a drunk domino. #Winning.
Goals: To become better at blocking out my senses and being less self-conscious. Come my third class, it became clear that there was no judgement, with the emphasis heavily placed on developing ‘your yoga practice,’ no matter what your level of experience.
Week 2: Bridging the gap...
I’m started to like this. Really like this.
Seeing subtle but encouraging improvements to my postures, particularly with regards to my balance is proving extremely motivating. I’m able to hold a Tree Pose (balancing on one leg with the other bent and placed on the opposite leg’s inner thigh), with minimal leg-shaking and more ease than I realised. It’s my attitude that needs the biggest shift and I’m beginning to see the effect being more present and having a more positive outlook is having on my practice, (woah, did I just refer to myself having a practice?!)
Not only that, but I’m starting to develop a genuine fondness of certain postures. Warrior 1 Pose (a deep side lunge with your arms parallel to the floor) makes me feel like a superhero or Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. The sense of real empowerment I feel as I start to flow, rather than sweatily stumble through the sequences, is addictive.
I even managed to do a Full Wheel (a bridge) - a move I haven’t done since gym in Year 5. Although I still feel like quite the novice and can’t hold it for the full time, I am starting to push myself more and actually enjoy doing so. My legs are still as crooked as a corrupt politician when doing Forward Folds, but unlike last week, there is a greater level of acceptance of my flaws that I didn’t have before.
Inner monologue: ‘I am the Mockingjay!!’
Win: My bridge. This was a major achievement for me considering how stiff my back and quads were after too many hours in front of a computer screen. My stomach and thighs are starting to tone up just enough to make my jeans feel less snug and the meditation segments at the end of the classes are giving my evenings the perfect wind down to aid a much better night’s sleep.
Goals: To gain greater range of motion, especially through my thighs and lower back. To attempt the Crow Pose - a diabolical invention whereby you balance on your hands with your knees rested on your upper arms. This is what I imagine pure evil looks like...
Week 3: Patience is a virtue...
This week has been one of ups and downs.
I had my best session so far at the start, where I actually managed to do a Full Wheel and hold a Crow Pose for around four seconds in the same class. Yes, I may have lost my balance and KO’d on the floor like a fallen tree soon after, but hey, it’s not how you fall that matters but how you get up (although I must say, I did fall rather spectacularly...)
My enthusiasm soon dissolved the next night though, following my worst session so far. The class concentrated predominately on my most inflexible body parts - my quads and hamstrings.
To quote Shakira, ‘My hips don’t lie,’ and much like Pinocchio, they were rubbish at telling porkies and pretending to be more flexible than they were. I went too hard too fast and having not left enough time for my body to recover from the previous day, I tweaked my thigh early on in the session and was catching up for the rest. Although disheartened, my reaction was vastly different from the first week’s and taking inspiration from another pop ingénue, I decided to swiftly, ‘Shake it off,’ and view it as a learning experience.
My last session of the week saw me make my first attempt at a headstand. With a strange mixture of apprehension and excitement, Carl helped me get into position and use the wall as a base in order to get my bearings. One leg off....stomach tight....I couldn’t quite muster up the courage or strength to get both feet off, but I have to remind myself that I WAS UPSIDE DOWN and these things will take time.
Inner monologue: ‘I’m doing a Crow! I’m doing a Cr....OW’
Win: A full wheel and Crane Pose in one week.
Goals: To remember to give my body a proper break to fully recover between sessions.
Week 4: Could I actually be looking forward to exercise?
I’ve got to the point now where I can’t wait for my yoga classes. I’m slowly but surely developing a familiarity with the poses which has given me much more confidence when attempting their more complicated variations and the increasing speed in which they are done. Although my legs aren’t completely straight when I bend down to touch the floor and I still need to sneak in the cheeky Child’s Pose when I’m finding it too much, the flow of movements makes me feel somewhat graceful and reaches muscles where I didn’t think I even had ones.
My High Planks are now much easier to hold and I find that I’m able to transition from vinyasa to Upward Dog to Downward Dog with greater purpose. I even had a bash at a three-legged variation without ending up in A&E, which has proven to be a great marker by which to measure my core strength by. I still find arm and leg balance poses still pretty tough though, always finding assistance in my trusty block in order to stabilise myself and to frankly, avoid breaking my bum.
I came one step closer to holding a headstand in my last class and the day I master it will be amazing. With Sophie’s help, I was able to alternate my legs as they came away from the wall. With her guidance and the skills I’ve learned so far, it made for the perfect setting to push my boundaries, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t get injured. I couldn’t ask for more really.
Inner monologue: ‘JUST BREATHE!’
Win: Going from a three-legged Downward Dog to three-legged Plank and pushing myself to take the more advanced options instead of playing it safe.
Goal: To do a headstand...one day!
When I started the month, my aims were to increase my flexibility, improve my posture and tone up when it came to my body and to become more present and calm when it came to my mind. On all counts, I can say it's been a success. My 30 days of vinyasa flow has led to me feeling taller, leaner and more stress-free, a mixture of results which is incomparable really to any type of exercise I've done in the past. What's more, it's sparked an ambition in me to get better - I actually look forward to exercise now and view it as essential 'me' time in the evenings.
As far as my flat stomach goes - there's still a little way to go, however I can certainly notice that it's going in the right direction. Stomach aside though, things are also particularly looking up when it comes to my, ahem, posterior. Having seemingly taken the lift from Basement to Level 1 since starting, I’m glad to report that it is currently acclimatising to its new altitude and much prefers its new location. If that’s not enough of an incentive to stay aboard the yoga train, I don’t know what is...
My yoga ‘It’ kit
These are the essentials that have helped me through the month...
Margaret Dabbs Sole Spa Medical Pedicure
£80. Buy online.
This is truly the best pedicure around. With a ‘no one size fits all’ approach, each step of this transformative beauty treatment is designed with your gait and specific foot problems in mind to ensure your feet are in tip top condition to hit your yoga mat.
Nike Leg-a-see Mishmash Allover Print leggings in Light Blue Lacquer
£33. Buy online.
There’s nothing worse or more mortifying for class full of yoga goers then when someone rocks up to a class in a thread-bare pair of leggings. This eye-catching pair from Nike though will make sure you garner looks for all the right reasons thanks to its sturdy design and extremely comfortable fit for transitioning from move to move with ease.
Sweaty Betty Victory Run Bra in Adonis Blue Beetle Blue
£40. Buy online.
Providing you with less bounce for your buck, this shock absorbent bra with padded cups is the perfect match for those of a modest bust size wanting to keep their cupcakes covered without turning them into pancakes.
Dailygreatness Yoga Journal
£34.95. Buy online.
This journal has acted as the perfect partner to my yoga adventures, providing a great way to keep focused and inspired throughout. Entering my thoughts before and after each of my classes during my train journeys to and from the studio helped to reset my mindset and keep track of what I needed to work on.
Bobble Water Bottle with Tether Cap in blue
From £8.99. Buy online.
The coolest-looking water bottle around, it even contains an electro-positive carbon filter inside to remove chlorine and tap water contaminants, leaving you with a pre or post-class tipple that beats your standard bottle of Evian.
Nike Pro Hypercool 2.0
£28. Buy online.
To aid movement and help you stay comfortable in the heat, look no further than this versatile tank top made of mesh and sweat-wicking fabric. It’s a gym bag staple that literally goes with anything.
Tune in next month to see how I fared after trying hot yoga for 30 days...
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