How long is yoga?

Category : General advice 3rd August 2020

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Inside Yoga 306 (3/8/20)

How long have we got to practice, how long do we give each posture, and how long is a piece of string? Important questions, and fortunately yoga is a flexible practice!

This is a message for those of us who feel we never have enough time to practice yoga. We do have time, because there is always time, even if it is just a few minutes of practice. It is a question of our priorities.

A regular practice is advisable, but we do not need to stick to rigid time frame, for example, only practising if we have a full hour might lead to very little practice, but if do a little regularly by the week’s end we will have done quite a bit. Each practice is still practice however long or short each session might be. If we have less time some days a short practice is better than none, and we never have much time, a regular short practice is better than nothing at all. Time can be short in the morning, especially just after getting up, we are often in a rush to get up and out of the house. Oh, hold on a moment. Most of us stay at home at present! So we cannot use the excuse of being in a mad rush to get out!

Look at our dogs or cats (and for non-pet owners: this will make sense!): notice how dogs or cats on waking up will stretch before moving off. Why do we think we do not have the time to do the same? No wonder we feel stiff if we don’t get our body going first!

Stretching can start in bed, before getting up, and then once we are up, a few yoga exercises (or any exercises) will not only wake us up and loosen our body, it will help our tired mind wake up. Yoga exercises are principally designed to prepare us for the day ahead and the world beyond our own four walls; and at the end of the day, as a way of removing the effects of the day from our body and mind.

It might be just 10 minutes, half hour, or perhaps more, it always helps, and if done daily, it will gradually become a routine we do not question doing and as a consequence of establishing a pattern, we will not forget to practice. I have practised like this for 25 years, long enough not to forget, and each morning I look at the clock and decide how long I have, but I always do something for my body and mind before breakfast!

Talking about this recently with yoga student, apparently the late-Bruce Forsyth who lived a long and healthy life said one reason he was able to dance in his 80s was that when waking up he spent a few minutes loosening his joints and limbs.

Fast forward through the day: after sitting at our desk most of the day, or similar levels of physical inactivity, in the afternoon another short practice, or perhaps a walk outside will help shake out those tired and stiff muscles. Returning again to our dogs and cats, they stretch out after a dozing whatever time it is. Have you ever seen a dog or cat look at their paw (for an imaginary watch) to check time and rush off saying there are too busy to stretch first? No we have not.

When it comes to the actual practice we can adapt what we do in terms of postures according to what we need that day, and how much time we have. I recommend start the same way each time, a warm up like I offer in my classes, for example, downward/upward facing dog asanas, followed by a sun salutation. I use a template of postures to give a practice structure as seen in my classes, adding and taking away certain exercises according to what is needed or feels appropriate, and how much time we have.

Allowing an element of intuitive listening to our body and mind is a good way of guiding us through practice. It helps us to know what exercise will be helpful, and beneficial. When I start my practice I begin with a regular warm up, and then I soon know what I need, in terms of asanas to practice, but remain open to adapting. I might find I am feeling stronger and more flexible than I thought I would have, so I add more challenging exercises, or conversely, I find that a gentler approach is more suitable.

This approach works well if I have flexibility with how much time I have, but if I have not got very long, for example, 15 minutes, I have a standard routine of asanas that I practice, which touch base with the range of body movements.

Some days we might realise that we need to alter practice to do the opposite of what we feel the urge to do! Contradictory perhaps, but for example, we notice we are rushing too much, or perhaps we can feel restlessness or frustration. Often the solution is to slow it down, “more is less” is the expression. Hold each posture longer, to allow time to slow it all down, extinguish the fire of restlessness which is destabilising us.

Alternatively, we might feel sluggish, and lazy: we can shake it off with a flowing sequence of yoga asanas, not holding any position too long, using the power of kinetic energy to revitalise how we feel.

There is no rule about how long a yoga asana held for, except for advice on safety, as some positions cannot be held as long as others, because the idea is do what works. Yoga’s meaning “union” refers to establishing a sense of balance and clarity: we practice to establish this by getting rid of what we do not need. That is why yoga is flexible, because what is needed changes day to day. And change season to season – for example, we tend to have more energy in summer than winter.

Patterns emerge though, and with practice we become better equipped to recognise how we are and know what to do to redress a sense of balance and yoga (union) with ourselves. With time we might even know ourselves better.

Speaking of time, another question of how long can be how until I reach my toes and other such milestones of achievement we often focus on. The answer is simple: it depends on how often we practice, and how long our sessions are, and other factors such as our body type, health, age, and so forth. So many unknowns! Why then bother with goals? After all, it is often said that the journey is more important than arriving. Yet, goals give us stages along our journey to focus on, giving us manageable steps to help us along.

With time and practice, we might begin to see that in itself the practice is enough on a day-to-day basis to help us along life’s journey. We might have set long term goals but we cannot spend all our time looking at a distant horizon. We need to be attentive to the present and this is the intention of a yoga practice.

For the big question: how long before I am enlightened? It might be worth noting that references to being enlightened refer to being awake to every moment, by living in the present. Having enough clarity and stillness to know how to respond to every moment is the key to practice. Perhaps the ultimate answer has been realised, but the truth is more mundane! There is a Zen saying, “before enlightenment I chopped wood, after enlightenment I chopped wood”!

Regular practice helps nourish us and balance us.

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