Zen Mistress

Zen Mistress: how to make yoga a habit for 2017

December 23rd 2016 / Victoria Woodhall

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No one knows more about how - and why - to stay yoga-motivated than yoga teacher and mother of four Genny Wilkinson-Priest. She tells Victoria Woodhall what gets her on the mat in the mornings and her tricks to make the yoga habit stick

Hands up whose New Year’s resolution is to take up yoga – or if you've dipped in before, to make a habit of it? I’ve been practising regularly for more than 15 years. But apart from the time pre-kids 13 years ago when I had a five-times-a-week Mysore self-practice (a drop-in form of Ashtanga where you practice a set sequence at you own pace under the supervision of a teacher), I've struggled to establish a regular pattern.

I was recently bemoaning the fact that children, school runs, full-time work, commuting and general urban exhaustion made daily practice impossible to Genny Wilkinson-Priest, Yoga Manager at London’s triyoga centres. I picked the wrong person. She happened to mention that she also had children (four, as opposed to my two), a full-time job and still managed to hop in the car and practice Ashtanga (the Third Series – that’s pretty much Cirque Du Soleil) with her teacher six days a week, before anyone else in the house was up. I went very quiet; how on earth did she do this and find the time to look extremely glamorous as well? I decided that if anyone knew about creating a yoga habit when you are time poor – and embodying that yoga glow – it was Genny.

Read Genny's inspiring story and tips for how to fall in love with yoga, below. And if you want to practice at home, scroll down for a 50 per cent January 2017 online yoga discount from Movement for Modern Life.

Get The Gloss: I'd like to start yoga regularly in 2017 as I've heard it's good for me. Where do I start?

Genny Wilkinson-Priest: "It’s true that yoga is very good for you but not just for the physical benefits such as added strength, increased flexibility and reduced back pain. The mind benefits are not to be underestimated; living in fast-paced urban environment is stressful and yoga will help calm you, allow you to sleep better and improve your concentration. Yoga will give you the tools necessary to navigate the difficulties of daily life with a lot more ease.

"So, where to start? On the face of it, that seems easy as yoga classes can be found not just in dedicated studios but in gyms, church halls and of course online. The key to good yoga, the kind that will have you coming back regularly, is finding a teacher you connect with. That's not necessarily the one with thousands of likes on their Instagram account - some of the best teachers I know don’t even have a smartphone let alone a Facebook profile.

"It might be the case that you begin practising regularly with two or three teachers. Over time you might develop a close bond with just one and you’ll grow to understand the importance of the teacher/student relationship.

"Likewise, you might find yourself moving from one style to another. You’ll notice that some practices complement one another, for instance, the attention to static alignment in an Iyengar class would balance out the movement of an Ashtanga class. Or consider taking a Restorative class one day and a Vinyasa Flow the next. While it’s good to try many different styles for as long as you want, eventually you might want to dedicate yourself to one. Dig one well deep rather than many shallow ones."

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GTG: How do I find a good teacher?

GWP: "In my 15 years of practice and 10 of teaching, I've compiled a checklist that I turn to again and again in my job at triyoga when scheduling teachers. Firstly, a teacher must have a regular practice and their own teacher to whom they stay connected, whether that’s from afar or near. Secondly, a teacher should be empathetic. They should teach the person in front of them and not blindly instruct posture after posture without regard for what that individual is capable of or needs. Thirdly, a teacher processes a crucial understanding that yoga as something beyond the physical. Lastly humility; it’s from a position of modesty that a teacher can put the needs of a student first."

GTG: Why do people’s New Year yoga resolutions often fail and what can we do to prevent it?

GWP: "January is a very busy time for yoga - classes are rammed. As teachers, we get excited that so many people want to practice, but at the same time, we know that by February, we will have lost at least half of the new students. Why? Because the intentions people set are often too ambitious. They commit to practising yoga four times a week, running three times a week, eating half the calories they consumed in December and reading a book a week. It’s simply not realistic.

"Instead, set your sights on something you might actually achieve. Rather than starting so strong, start slowly. Once you have established yourself comfortably into an easy pattern, build on it from there."

MORE GLOSS: Mindfulness or meditation - what's the difference and which one do you need?

GTG: How do I take it up a level to daily practice?

GWP: "When you up your yoga practice, you naturally become more interested in the philosophy behind it. It’s in the ancient texts of yoga scripture that you can find inspiration for daily practice. The Yoga Sūtras, written around the 1st or 2nd century, recommends we observe tapas, or as is literally translated – heated effort. Daily practice requires discipline and sometimes you’ll have to endure hardships along the way – you might need to give up a night out if you want to practice the next morning. You might have to eschew a night in front of the television and go to a mediation class instead. Sacrifice isn’t easy, but know the rewards of daily practice are great, both for the inner and outer body.

"Being consistent in the time that you choose to practice whether that’s in the morning or the evening is key."

GTG: What’s better, little and often or a couple of long classes a week?

GWP: "Start off practising little but often. Establish yourself into this pattern and then build up. Some of my most valuable practices have consisted of just three sun salutations, a seated twist and then savasana (final relaxation). This takes me all of 15 minutes. Do this six times a week instead of a two-hour practice once a week; it’s all about creating a daily discipline to allow yoga to settle into your bones.

"If you only practice once a week and push yourself so hard during that two-hour class, you’ll disassociate yourself from awareness, sensation and ultimately your growth. You need to balance your nervous system daily, not just once a week. A smart yoga practice will stimulate your parasympathetic nervous system in order to bring about that perfect balance between relaxation and action.

"Regular yoga practice, even just 10 minutes a day done at home, will help you understand your mental patterns and lay down new, more beneficial ones. In my case, it took a few years to establish a yoga habit before my other (less healthy) habits started to change. I started to eat less and drink less, I became more productive at work as I was better able to concentrate. And I didn’t shout at my kids so much.

"Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a girl who enjoys a decent glass of Barolo and I can murder a four-cheese pizza. But it’s all about moderation."

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GTG: It's not the yoga, but the motivation that's a problem. And words of advice?

GWP: "I’m not going to pretend establishing a regular yoga practice is easy. I have four children and every day it’s a struggle to fit my yoga practice around my duties as a working mother. The only way it works for me is to wake early at 4:15 am. I drink a cup of coffee, read the news for 15 minutes and then hop into the car to make the 15-minute journey to see my teacher, Hamish Hendry at Astanga Yoga London in Euston. Affectionately, I call him my yoga husband; I’ve spent two hours a day with this man for the past 12 years. He knows my mood the minute I walk through door; we say little to each other because we don’t have to – we know each other that well.

"When that alarm goes off, you better believe my inner voice says, 'You’re nuts. Go back to sleep.' But I know that if I don’t get up right then and there, practice will never happen for the rest of the day. I’ve got to take the kids to school, then work, then shop for food, take one son to his cello lesson and another to climbing club. I’ve got to supervise homework, get the laundry done and cook dinner for six.

"When you’re a mum, there is very little me time. Actually, there’s zero if you’re not careful. And if you don’t carve it out for yourself, you’ll end up losing yourself. When that inner voice says 'screw it, forget the practice' – steel yourself with resolve and go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve wanted to skip practice. But not once, not once, have I regretted going to class.

GTG: How did you lay down your own regular yoga habit?

GWP: "It took time. That’s the other key – don’t expect this to happen overnight. The little and often approach works well. I first started practising yoga 15 years ago where I grew up in New York. I was working as a journalist covering Wall Street. And then 9/11 happened and the world seemed to fall apart around me. I still have a hard time even thinking about that day; the stresses of covering it and the aftermath took their toll. It was around then that I started practising yoga in earnest. Not long after, I was hooked and practising daily.

"As to waking so early, that didn’t happen until about six years ago when my fourth child was one year old; it was the only time I could fit in practice. I’d nurse him at 4am then settle him back down before heading to practice. I’d be back before he and the other boys woke; they never even knew I had gone. Yoga empowered me and made me feel that even with four kids under five years old, I still had some control of my life."

"Know that you may fall off the wagon and that it’s OK if you do. After my dad died, I didn’t want to look at my yoga mat let alone unroll it. My teacher said, “That’s OK. Yoga will wait for you.” Any guilt I carried in quitting dissipated. During my time off, I was acutely aware of how much I really missed the benefits of regular practice. And eventually I came back and honestly it was like I never left."

GTG: What are the biggest challenges to a regular practice and how have you got around them?

GWP: "Fatigue - we all feel it. But here’s the thing – I’m more tired when I don’t practice every day. Prepare yourself in advance; if you are going to practice early in the morning, get your kit out the night before so that you’re not rummaging around at 6am looking for your sports bra. These days I get by on anywhere between five and six hours a night sleep. I think that my yoga practice allows me to have less sleep. It makes no sense; I don't understand it. But it feeds me with energy, gives me clarity of mind, I can prioritise my work and personal life more clearly and my energy levels are steady throughout the day.

"If you are going to practice after work, get excited about it. Remember what you love about yoga and focus on that not how tired you are.

"Schedule your social life around practice. I restrict my late nights out to Friday nights when I know I don’t have to get up early the next day (Saturday is a day of rest for an Ashtanga practitioner). Set your routine and do not deviate from it. It gets easier with time. "

GTG: Any last pieces of advice?

GWP: "Accepting that each time you step on your mat, the practice feels different, will help you come back time and again. Come to the mat with an open mind and don't beat yourself up when you feel like you’re moving through cement or congratulate yourself for feeling strong.

"Dedication to regular practice is furthered by the friends you make in class. The importance of my friends within my yoga community cannot be underestimated. Every day we wake at an absurd hour and silently lay down our mats close to one another. It’s as if we are coming together in a playful prayer. We nod our heads good morning; we offer one another a blanket when in savasana. We’ve seen each other through deaths (I wept on my mat for weeks after my father died) and births (we show each other photos of our yoga babies.) There’s a lot of love between us that’s held together by the glue that is our teacher.

"Having said all this, my practice is not the most important thing in my life. I will always prioritise my children, so if my youngest is feeling poorly, my yoga practice is taking care of him for the day. Yoga – a spiritual discipline as much as a physical one – is practised in many ways, and not always when in downward dog."

For classes at triyoga's centres in London's Soho, Camden and Chelsea go to https://www.triyoga.co.uk/classes/

If you can’t make it out of the house, but still want to get on the mat, our friends at yoga streaming platform Movement For Modern Life have a two-week free trial and are offering Get The Gloss readers 50 per cent off all subscriptions. Enter GETGLOSS50 here until end January.

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