Tips for Beginners
Downward-Facing Dog, Eagle Pose, Garland Pose, Half Moon Pose and Lotus Pose – just to name a few. This is the empowering language of yoga that can leave even a beginner wanting more. More flexibility, more strength, a stronger core, better muscle tone and even more focus. Can one practice really deliver all of this? Yoga Instructor RJ Lisander offered a resounding Yes! when I went to her to find the answers that many women who are curious about yoga want to know. As RJ makes clear in this Q&A, getting started with yoga doesn’t have to be intimidating and it doesn’t have to be scary. Everyone who tries this ancient practice is a beginner at some point, but as most find fairly quickly, yoga is not only good for your body, it’s great for your mind as well. I think RJ put it best when she said, “It helps you find balance between the extremes of everyday life on and off the mat.”
Peppermint Tea & Me: What is yoga?
RJ Lisander: For me personally, it’s been a practice of contrasts – learning how to be strong but vulnerable in different poses, in different styles of yoga and different practices. It has taught me how to understand when I can take a leap of faith and push myself into a pose versus when I just need to relax and let the pose come to me. When I work with clients, I see that yoga really is a way for them to come back into their bodies. They do that through my classes through breath and just practicing poses in a really safe environment, and that gives them a lot of confidence.
PTM: What are some of the different types of yoga?
RJ: In practice, there are lots of types of yoga. We have more vigorous styles of yoga that you would find in the Vinyasa, Hot Yoga or Ashtanga styles. But then you also have more restorative yoga, such as Yin Yoga, that’s really designed more to help the body stretch and slow down. Then there’s kind of everything in between. If you’re looking for a physical workout, you’re probably going to want to go to the more Vinyasa style of yoga. If you’re in pretty good shape and you’re looking to yoga for stress management, you’re probably going to want to find more of a connection with an individual teacher.
PTM: What are the physical benefits of yoga?
RJ: Yoga can help the body relax, so it can lower blood pressure. It can relieve stress and anxiety, it can help people sleep, it can strengthen the body, it can tone the body, it can help with digestion and digestive issues and it can help with anxiety disorders. It all really depends on what you want to bring to the practice.
It can also help you reconnect with your body, and what I mean by that is that when we go through traumas, for example women with breast cancer, and they’ve had a mastectomy, they’ve lost a part of their physical being. The body has to learn how to work with that, and yoga is one of the modalities that can help. That comes more in a private setting.
Yoga just overall helps people to better understand what’s going on with their bodies, and they can really start to make better decisions about what their needs are.
PTM: Where does the strengthening and toning part happen?
RJ: In any pose, you can bring awareness to the muscles and really work and engage them. You can focus on drawing the belly in toward the spine, extending the arms out like they’re pulling away from the body in two different directions. You can focus on standing really firmly on the ground with the legs. That can transform one pose into another that’s a little bit more work.
In the more vigorous styles, such as Vinyasa, Hot Yoga and Power Core yoga, you’re working a little bit more to support the pose, your heart rate is going to raise a little higher because you’re moving a little bit more constantly. There are long holds in some of those classes and some of those poses, so to stay in a pose, you really have to engage. Even in gentle flow classes, you’ll experience that engagement as well. So, the toning isn’t necessarily what you would find in someone who is lifting weights or in a cycling class or doing some kind of CrossFit, or TRX, but the toning is one that can be very subtle but also builds strength within the body.
PTM: What are the mental benefits of yoga?
RJ: Awareness and focus are two of the biggest mental benefits that people experience in a yoga practice. Focus comes from really having to engage the entire body in order to get into a lot of the poses and to go through the movements. From one movement to another, you have to be aware of what your body is doing, and that also creates focus because you’re working on sitting in those poses and bringing awareness to the breath. In some of the more restorative practices, you might sit in a pose for seven minutes. Your mind can start to wander, so you have to focus on your breath and the sensations that you’re feeling in that pose in order to stay present in that moment.
Other benefits include better sleep and just better general body awareness. It helps people to understand that they may have an ache in their shoulder, but it may actually be coming from something that’s happening in the hip. You become better aware of where you hold tension and that allows you to have a better sense of overall wellbeing and provides kind of a space for dialogue where you can start thinking about what’s actually going on with you.
A lot of times, people who practice yoga regularly will experience shifts off the mat – they’re calmer in general when they encounter stressful situations, they’re more aware of the language that they use, so they become more self-aware. Those are some of the biggest benefits of Yoga.
PTM: Who is yoga good for?
RJ: Yoga is good for everybody. It’s really more about understanding what your body needs and the right style of yoga for you. That might change and evolve over time, so it’s a matter of finding the right place to start and letting the practice grow and develop and adapt as your needs change.
Note: As with any new exercise regimen, check with your doctor before beginning yoga – especially if you’ve had an injury or any type of health issue.
PTM: What type of class should beginners look for?
RJ: I would say that for very beginners, looking for a workshop or a series on yoga foundations or basics would be the best place to start. They’re offered pretty much at the beginning of every season at all yoga studios and are generally going to be smaller classes with experienced teachers who are going to walk through the nuances of the poses to really help you understand them. While seasons vary from studio to studio, the beginning is usually August/September, January/February and April/May.
If you’re in really good shape and you have good body awareness, take any class that interests you. If you’re not sure, call the studio and ask for a recommendation or ask a teacher if you can observe to see if a class will work for you.
For people who are older and have a little less movement in their day to day life for whatever reason, going to a slower restorative class would be a really good way to get into a practice. But make sure that the instructor knows if there is a risk of low blood pressure or high blood pressure. The instructor can help set up breath patterns in the class that are good for you and for the whole class.
If going to a class seems scary or intimidating, start with a smaller or private setting so that you can figure out what’s right for you.
PTM: What are the best clothes to wear for yoga?
RJ: Wear what you’re comfortable with. If you’re a beginner, something that’s a little bit more tailored to the body is helpful to the instructor as they’re watching your movements to help with alignment. Be sure your clothing will be out of your way while you practice, so a super baggy t-shirt that falls over your face when you bend forward into downward-facing dog is maybe not the best choice. But something that’s loose enough that you’re comfortable with it that you can tuck in or tie on the side that stays flat is perfectly acceptable. They also have these really cute tapered yoga pants out now in different fabrics that allow the instructor to see the movements but also provide you with some modesty.
If you have your hair pulled back, make sure that it’s pulled high so that when you lay down, you don’t have a barrette, or bun or ponytail or something that’s preventing your neck from going into the right position. You want to wear as few jewelry accessories as possible and try not to wear heavy perfumes because if you sweat, that can be very distracting to others.
PTM: How many times a week would you recommend that yoga be done to get the maximum benefits?
RJ: It depends on your health goals and other things that you’re doing. If you’re doing it three times a week, you’re doing fabulous and you’re going to get maximum benefits from that. If you can get yoga in once a week or 15 minutes a day in a home practice, you’re also going to be ahead of the curve as far as the benefits.
RJ says that the main thing to remember when you’re starting a yoga practice is not to compare yourself with others. The poses will develop as your practice develops, so don’t worry about where you are versus where someone else is. Simply show up on the mat for yourself and do what you can do.
Noise: A beautiful word to describe so many sounds … air pollution, background music during tv shows, ambiance at restaurants and other public spaces, phones ringing and binging and keyboards clacking in offices. Then there is the noise of our internal lives. You know, our internal dialogue, the nagging thoughts, the aching muscles and tired minds.
Noise, suddenly doesn’t seem like such a beautiful word. In this context, it sounds like just another word for stress to me.
So, how do we find quiet in the noise of the day? It’s not aways easy or possible. But, here are some of my favorite tips:
- Turn off the tv, radio, electronic devices for the time it takes to prepare a meal. Draw your awareness to the sounds of boiling water, sizzling meats (if you eat meat), and the sound of crisp veggies being chopped. Notice the sensations of the work such as the feel of water running over the veggies as you clean them, the feel of heat coming from the stove/oven. Then, you can’t help but notice the smells of the meal you are preparing. Inhale deeply and don’t be surprised if the act of cooking becomes a labor of joy and a new taste of love.
- Drive without the radio on and depending on the weather roll the car windows down. List to all of the street sounds, cars, trucks, motor cycles, horns, people hailing taxis. Then notice how those sounds disappear into the sound of the wind as you pull away from traffic and to the open road. If someone were to ask you to describe the wind, what words would you use? How would you describe the feel of the wind in your hair?
- Try taking a part of your daily run or walk without earbuds in and on. Move in silence as you become aware of the tempo of the feet, the beat of the heart, the rhythm of the breath. Can you feel these things coming into tune with the natural world around you?
- At the office try listening to coworkers in the halls, by the coffee maker, waiting for meetings, nod wisely, laugh appropriately and use words sparingly, succinctly. Set your phone to vibrate and take notes, if at all possible, with pen and paper during meetings. Notice how your quiet softens the noise and chatter. How do you feel in this space of quiet?
Advance practitioner challenge: Try journaling about the sensations and thoughts that come to you in these spaces of quiet. Notice what repeats. Pay close attention to the things that repeat. These things that repeat are the things that quiet is trying to reveal to you.
We only have so much time in the day to accomplish all we need to do. And, on those days when things are too piled up we often take the time we would like or need for ourselves off that list in favor of completing other tasks or meeting our responsibilities. Before we know it we have fallen into a pattern of self-neglect and eventually, we loose touch with our greatest resource … ourselves. I am often asked how to reconnect or manage and juggle priorities to reverse or avoid this pattern without putting additional demands on our schedules. Though the list below is not an all-inclusive list or guide on how to get back in touch with you, it does include some of the general thoughts I share with clients:
Your body is your home: Your body is where you reside. It is where you live your life and it is always with you. Your outward appearance is a reflection of your inner state. Looking in the mirror can so often be a good way to gauge the state of your home. Do you look tired, sallow, broken out, gaunt, swollen? If you do, it is time to take a breath and check in. You will be happy you did.
Watch your thoughts, Part 1: Take a moment to listen to your self talk. If there is something negative that comes up in your thoughts, for example, “I’m stretched so thin I’m not doing anything well”? If so pause and take a moment to think of something you did do well. Eventually you’ll see some consistency in what you are doing well and that becomes a positive to build upon. Combating each thought that says you are not good enough with a thought that states something you are good at will create a space of accomplishment where there was once a void.
Watch your thoughts, Part 2: In yoga and meditation classes I often share the philosophy that we are not all one thing or the other. The body is capable of being tight and relaxed at the same time. It is just that we often pay attention to the tension and not the part of us that is soft, relaxed. When you feel overwhelmed, take a moment to recall a favorite memory, smell, moment. Notice how this shifts things in your mind, relaxes you a bit and allows you to refocus from a place of calm. Things won’t seem as overwhelming once you are refocused.
Don’t punish your body for your choices: We only have one body and the way we treat it will affect it’s ability to take care of us, move with us through our day and support us. So, if you feel tired, sore, anxious, don’t punish the body with stimulants, quick-fix pain relief ointments or pills (unless needed and prescribed by a doctor). Instead, listen to the body and it’s intuitive wisdom. Slow down. Breath. Adapt as needed. Drink a glass of water, have some herbal tea, eat a healthy snack, and/or go for a walk. Don’t neglect to see a doctor, get a massage or take other appropriate self care measures when you need them. Trust me, everything else can wait. And, if you are sick or otherwise unable to do what you do, things won’t just be put on pause for an hour, they will be delayed or halted all together.
Follow these simple, no time commitment steps and see what changes come about for you. Feel free to share your observations, questions, comments with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’d love to hear from you!
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Previously published in IKAPIA Magazine Volume 40, Number 150, Spring 2018
There is no escaping it.
The fact is, the wellness and mindfulness movements are upon us because, in general, we need them. We hear all the buzz, but aren’t always sure about what it means or that we understand the benefits. And, more often than not the promise of an improved life seems all too much like hype and serves as a deterrent to taking the time to slow down and do nothing.
I get it. I was there once too.
The truth is, there are benefits to meditation and they are profound. But, they require time, patience and practice; things many of us are short on and not always inclined to make space for in our already over-scheduled and packed lives. We have become an instant gratification society. And, why not? So much can happen and unfold in an instant that we don’t always have to be patient to get what we want.
Meditation offers the opposite. In mediation we find stillness, a sense of slowing down, pairing down and many times a sense of awkwardness and some minor discomfort, as sensations we are not accustomed to move through our physical bodies. And, while there isn’t likely going to be a tremendous epiphany or overall sense of wow, now life makes sense and I’m healed of my long list of stress-induced ailments these sensations are the first signs that meditation is starting to become a beneficial practice. But, this is just the beginning, true transformations unfold slowly, subtly and deeply.
While there are numerous lists describing the benefits of meditation, in my practices, personal and professional, I have observed the first benefit comes from slowing down. Even just a 5 minute reset in the middle of the afternoon with a cup of tea and a couple of deep breaths, the phone turned off, your back to your computer, and the time you give yourself to simply stop multi-tasking, talking, doing, allows the mind to rest. The body slows down and a sense of calm generally fills your being. Likely, your mood will improve, as well.
The second benefit of meditation, noticing that you are better able to stay calm and focused throughout your day and during life events, usually starts to unfold after a few days or weeks of consistent 10-15 minute practices. This is because the ongoing practice of meditation increases the grey matter in the brain which effects areas involving perspective, emotional regulation, focus, learning and self-awareness.
The third benefit many start to recognize after a regular practice of mediation is better sleep. You read that right! You don’t necessarilarly need sleep aids to cure your insomnia. Likely the practice of meditation can help you gain a good night’s sleep. Right before bed I turn on a guided meditation through a free phone app called Insight Timer and no matter the state of my world, I am able to drift off to a nice long sleep in minutes. (There are many free meditation apps out there and I recommend giving them a try and find one you like).
The fourth benefit of meditation typically leans toward improved health. Study after study demonstrate as we slow down, improve focus (and what we focus on), increase our length and quality of sleep, our health tends to improve. Regular practices of meditation can lead to overall reduced blood pressure, pain reduction, lowered stress and anxiety levels, better choices in how we nourish ourselves through food, thoughts and actions due to heightened awareness of our needs. All of these things lead to better overall health, prevention of larger, more serious health issues and give us the potential for a longer life. Simply sitting in meditation, particularly a series of guided meditations using visualizations, can truly make all the difference in our lives no matter the age. Free apps and local yoga studios often have guided meditations with visualizations on a variety of themes. Give yourself permission to take a little time to explore and find what works for you.
The mind is a powerful thing and as we take a moment to unplug, unwind, sit and listen to our breath and observe the sensations in our bodies, the innate wisdom of each individual begins to unfold. We learn that a little time spent on ourselves makes us better able to define our needs and inspirations, which, in turn allows us to better serve others. And, this is the true benefit of meditation. Though it is not yet scientifically proven, I think you will agree with me, when we are working from a place of focused calm, true to our instincts and inspirations we simply are better at whatever it is we do. Bringing out our best and the best in others … that is the true gift of meditation.